Fusing the supple novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s storytelling instincts and the wanton eye of DP Christopher Doyle should be an exciting proposition, even without Ralph Fiennes’s wardrobe at its most dapper. Alas, The White Countess, the final Merchant Ivory film, is something of a lacquered dud. Set in 1930s Shanghai, amid growing Sino-Japanese friction, the film (based on an Ishiguro script) weaves together the lives of Fiennes’s Jackson, an American diplomat turned businessman and nightclub connoisseur, and Natasha Richardson’s Sofia, a Russian countess reduced to working dance halls to support her disdainful family. After Sofia leads the blind Jackson to the safety of his car (he’s about to get jumped by some hoods), he decides to pursue the bar of his dreams. A happy cash infusion allows him to open the White Countess (as it were), with Sofia as hostess, her tragic biography deepening the ambience.
The film has some early allure, sort of Scent of a Woman with rickshaws and cheongsams. Richardson is a subtly melancholy presence, though the scenes of her home life (including two other Redgraves) are like unwelcome visits to Accents “R” Us. Fiennes is a bit wobblier, vocally, as a U.S. expat, his Midwestern (?) accent coming and going. He’s better at the physical fillips—taking several steps at a leap, gliding into a car as his manservant protectively blocks out the boundaries of the door.
When Jackson complains to his Japanese friend, the suave but sinister Mr. Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada), that all his bar lacks is “political tension,” I think he just means tension; it’s the sound of the filmmakers realizing that the whole scenario—The White Countess, not just the White Countess—is irredeemably dull. (The entertainment at the White Countess includes ballerinas, two people dressed like cats, an orotund Teutonic tenor—whee!)
Ishiguro’s métier is reticence and the dodges of memory, and Jackson characteristically keeps his private life walled away, most notably when insisting that he and Sofia maintain a strictly professional rapport. The White Countess is his way of keeping the outside world at bay, a logical commercial development of internal processes, and if this conceit is interesting, it gets considerably less so when we hear it again and again. The flashbacks explaining what happened to Jackson’s family (and his eyesight) are embarrassingly perfunctory—a trauma checklist that begs the question, if he really wanted to stop dwelling on painful matters, wouldn’t he just have hightailed it back to the States?