If you watch a lot of movies, it's hard not to get a sense of déjà vu from The White Countess. This period piece, the last partnership of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant (Merchant died last May), marks the second time in the past year (following The Constant Gardener) Ralph Fiennes has played a Western diplomat abroad mourning over a slain wife and child. It also marks the second time in the past year (following Asylum) Natasha Richardson has been far better than the minor art-movie she's starring in.
Set in Shanghai in the mid-1930s, between the wars and amid growing Sino-Japanese tensions, The White Countess is meant to be a movie about two lost souls finding each other against the backdrop of a world gone mad. But the balance is so severely off that the movie never really comes together. That Fiennes and Richardson find each other and (sort of) fall for each other seems only a matter of script necessity.
Fiennes' Todd Jackson is a former American diplomat who has grown disillusioned about world affairs and is nursing the wounds of some unspoken family tragedy. To add to his ailments, he's also recently lost his sight. So he wanders the streets of Shanghai, his appointed driver trying to keep up, ignoring his business associates and drinking and smoking the night away in a series of dingy and disreputable dives.
Jackson's dream is to open a dive of his own, his "dream bar," as a kind of controllable private world, a refuge from the "bigger canvas" he's abandoned. (The motivation is supplied if not exactly convincing.) He regales a companion with his master plan for the perfect establishment -- the bouncers, the clientele, the entertainment, and, most of all, the women. The women, Jackson says, must find just the right balance between "the erotic and the tragic."
Jackson -- as well as the audience -- finds that balance in the form of Sofia Belinsky (Richardson), a former Russian countess now in exile. Sofia lives with her daughter and her late husband's disdainful family and supports them all as a dance-hall girl, talking to and dancing with patrons, and sometimes more. ("We all have to fall in love now and then to feed our children," she says to a distressed co-worker.) Sofia's once-aristocratic mother-in-law thinks of her as a whore but takes the money anyway.
Smitten, Jackson offers Sofia a job as hostess of his new nightclub -- dubbed the White Countess. Presiding over a cosmopolitan clientele with her faded-glory backstory providing atmosphere, Sofia is a great role, the kind that Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo would have played, and Richardson totally works. This character and actress is worth a movie, but The White Countess isn't quite it. As compelling as Sofia is, Fiennes' Jackson is a concept that doesn't translate. Fiennes' mannered performance comes with moments where you're not sure if the intent is whimsy or pathos, and, either way, some of the comedy feels unintentional. Fiennes' Jackson just feels artificial and, as a result, the movie's own balance falls apart.
The White Countess
Opening Friday, February 10th
Studio on the Square