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The White Countess  rating

Review: written 2007

Perfectly produced but emotionally uninvolving period piece

This film will probably always be remembered for being Merchant Ivory's last film, rather than for any artistic merit. It has all the correct ingredients for becoming another of their classics - It is lavishly shot, full of terrific actors, written by a well respected screenwriter and is a period piece with great production values. Alas, the ingredients have failed to rise to the occasion here.

The story revolves around a blind American diplomat in 30's Shanghai, who aspires to build his own bar amidst the chaotic, bohemian and corrupt atmosphere of the times. He has a singular vision in his head how the bar should be and it needs its centrepiece - the White Countess, played by Natasha Richardson. She is a Countess from Russia, in exile since the revolution, and with her family living in poverty. When he meets her, she is working as a dancing girl in a bar - he employs her and names his bar after her. However, he remains aloof, as if knowing her more deeply will bring the illusion of stability and grandeur to an end. Events start to (or should I say eventually) overtake them though as the Japanese invasion looms ever closer.

However grand the production values and immaculate the design of the movie, somehow there is little heart. The story has real potential for aching tragedy and romance, and yet despite a fine performance from Natasha Richardson in particular, it is difficult to find an emotional core which resonates on any personal level. Fiennes is normally a dead cert in a movie like this, and yet perhaps because playing an American, never quite finds the tone of his character. In short, the canvas is large, but the romance written on it feels small scale.

Having said that, the movie has its moments, and does not drag as much as some people would have you believe. There are a few memorable moments, such as the blind diplomat wandering unknowing into a line of Japanese soldiers with bayonets ready, asking to get past. It is the expectations you have coming to a Merchant Ivory movie that make this a disappointment. By other standards, it is certainly no classic, but worthy of a watch.

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