March 13, 2006

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The White Countess (PG-13)
reviewed by Amy Diaz

Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson give us an elegant and tragic pair for some historical melodrama fun in The White Countess, the last of the Merchant Ivory films.

The costume dramas seem to take no end of joy in making Fiennes suffer, understandable because he’s so good at it. Here, he plays Jackson, a blind former diplomat who has lost his family and his faith and is stumbling around 1936 Shanghai in search of a good time. Not so fond of the Anglo clubs, he finds himself attracted to the sparkle and sin of the bars filled with dancing girls, soldiers and troublemakers of all nationalities. In the tradition of all disappointed World War II-era men since Rick in Casablanca, Jackson even wants to own one of those dens of edge-of-the-apocalypse amusement himself. He finds the perfect centerpiece for his bar in Sofia (Richardson), former Russian nobility now working as a taxi dancer and occasional prostitute to support her daughter and her dead husband’s extremely ungrateful family. She is The White Countess of both the film’s title and the name that Jackson gives to his club, a perfect world which — in spite of his blindness — he can navigate with ease and which — in spite of the building turmoil caused by Japanese aggression — he seems to believe can hold back the outside world.

Ralph Fiennes plays tortured romantic well — The English Patient certainly gave him plenty of chance to practice. Richardson is beautiful in a way that comes only with maturity and is consequently rare in films. (A side note: during one of the slower segments of the film, I got to thinking about the difference between Richardson and Sharon Stone. Both are in their 40s and yet Richardson here has a glow, a loveliness and a sexuality completely unmatched by the too-tight-skinned, too-blonde creepiness of Stone. While Stone’s character called for a certain harshness, it does seem that Hollywood tries to unnaturally cram women in to one, very young, image of beauty. As Richardson proves here, that kind of faked approach to looking good is both unwise and unnecessary.)

The loveliness of our leads is augmented by the beauty of the setting, even the decaying parts of Shanghai seem to be doing so with grace. Even when the war intrudes on this otherworldly environment, it seems to do so with a certain amount of politeness.

And here lies the problems. Even a restrained romance needs some passion somewhere — after all, without a struggle, what’s to restrain? — and the passion of The White Countess seems confined to the background. We intellectually understand that Jackson and Sofia have feelings for each other, we just see little evidence of it. The unspoken longing, the heat — if these things are there, they’ve been hidden pretty well by all the white-gloved manners.

Playing in some of the specialty theaters in the area and scheduled for a May 16 release on DVD, The White Countess is a visual treat that will leave you only sort of restless for part of its two hours and 18 minutes. Lovely-looking and well acted despite its frequent lifelessness, it is a cool bit of entertainment for some rainy night spent in. B-


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