A review of “The White Countess” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ** 1/2

Rating: PG-13 for mature themes

Run Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

 

 

The last of the formidable Merchant-Ivory collaborations (Ismail Merchant passed away last year) is not in keeping with the quality we have come to expect from the classy duo but its artistry is in the right place.

Shanghai circa 1936, a time of political restlessness and upheaval. Blind American diplomat Todd Jackson contemplates shirking his diplomatic duties in favor of pursuing his dream: an upscale nightclub with all the glamour and intrigue of Rick's Café Américain in “Casablanca”.

Jackson isn’t the only one with dreams. Enter exiled Russian countess Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson) whose family is reduced to living on the edge while waiting to reclaim their lost glory. Sofia keeps her struggling clan afloat by shedding her dignity and working nights as a prostitute.

Though Jackson can’t actually see her he falls for Sofia in a big way and spirits her away from her illicit night business to become the “centerpiece” of his swanky sanctuary. A royal refugee beauty; the ideal draw for an exotic evening oasis.

The club is a success but Jackson isn’t content, owing his distress to the fact that his place lacks the political tension of the dive bars he has frequented since his wife’s untimely death. Amidst the turmoil leading up to the 1937 Japanese invasion Jackson and Sofia embark on a beautiful romance that’s earmarked by past hurts and passionate tragedy.

“Countess” encompasses familiar Merchant-Ivory elements; gorgeous period costumes and backdrops, unspoken endearments and an uneasy foundation of social unrest. The performances are top notch when not weighed down by the script’s more exaggerated pretensions (“All of us have to fall in love from time to time to feed our children”).

Fiennes’ moody posturing sets a deliciously melodramatic tone but can’t overcome uneven pacing, sluggish in spots and delightfully energetic in others. Over-calculated and less than it should be but not without its charms.