Directed by James Ivory, produced by Ismail Merchant and finished shortly before Merchant's death in May, "The White Countess" marks the final work in a collaboration that spanned 40 years. It's a funny distinction that seems especially discordant in conjunction with its honorees in this case, but it also indirectly reflects the immense popular appeal of Merchant-Ivory films. "The White Countess" was written by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, whose "The Remains of the Day" was adapted in 1993 by longtime Merchant-Ivory collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and it is set in the Shanghai of 1936 and '37, on the brink of the Japanese invasion.
I hadn't noted the Ishiguro connection going in but found myself thinking about the earlier film, which touched on similar themes throughout. In "The Remains of the Day," Anthony Hopkins plays Stevens, a legendary butler in the ancestral estate of the Nazi appeaser Lord Darlington, where he represses his feelings for the housekeeper as assiduously as he polishes the silver. In "The White Countess," Ralph Fiennes plays a former legendary diplomat who has lost, among other things, his eyesight, his faith in diplomacy, his social skills and, for much of the film, his sobriety. Instead of a stately home in England, Jackson runs an elegant Shanghai nightclub -- a meticulously designed and orchestrated operation that doubles as a refuge from the world and a controlled microcosm of the chaos brewing outside. There he represses his feelings for a Russian countess living in reduced circumstances -- or so I gathered, anyway, near the end, which is about when the depth of his affection seems to dawn on him too.
The similarities between the movies aren't immediately apparent. Ishiguro's script is not surprisingly the more novelistic of the two, a characteristic that ultimately functions as a testament to the ways movies don't work in the same way as novels. Unlike Jhabvala's tense and bristling study in frustration, repression and regret, "The White Countess" is peppered with longueurs and flights of whimsy, capturing its protagonists -- Jackson (Fiennes) and the countess Sofia (Natasha Richardson) -- in a sort of post-traumatic torpor. (Jackson is reeling from a personal tragedy as Sofia suffers her losses in stoic, melancholy, heavily Russian-accented isolation.) It throws them together early on but keeps their relationship at bay until the end -- when I, for one, was way past giving a kumquat.
Considering how many of the same elements are in place, it's hard not to conclude that what is missing from "The White Countess" is Jhabvala's crisp, terse touch. In her adaptation of Ishiguro's novel, she seemed to take all the silences, stillness and inaction and electrify them. Emma Thompson's Miss Kenton, in particular, displayed a corseted vitality that made you want to grab Hopkins for her and shake him hard by the lapels. The crucial difference in "The White Countess" is that the central characters are turned toward (or pointedly away) from their pasts; their conflicts are mostly external. Jackson is ostracized by former business and diplomatic associates, Sofia by the hideous, ridiculous family of her dead husband, and neither seems to know what his or her heart wants until the last possible moment.
The title refers to Jackson's bar and to the woman who inspired it. Sofia Belinsky lives with her daughter Katya (Madeleine Daly) and her mother-in-law, Olga (Lynn Redgrave), sister-in-law Greshenka (Madeleine Potter), kind Aunt Sara (Vanessa Redgrave) and Uncle Peter (John Wood) in a shabby apartment above a tailor in the international section of Shanghai. Sofia works as a taxi dancer and prostitute to support her disapproving family. Jackson, who has been dreaming of opening "the perfect bar," successfully gambling his savings on a horse to do so, meets her at her place of employ and immediately pegs her for the magical ingredient his establishment needs.
To say his approach to hospitality management is eccentric is to understate the case. After meeting Sofia he becomes convinced she is exactly what his establishment needs and hires her as a sort of hostess and muse, making it clear that he means strictly business. If this presents any sort of problem of the heart for Sofia, you wouldn't know it. Her despair keeps her pretty well occupied, as does her concern for her daughter, whom Olga and Greshenka insist will be corrupted by the sight of her mother in a cocktail dress.