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The White Countess

No Casablanca
James Ivory Flies Blind In Shanghai
By Cole Smithey

Director James Ivory captures Ralph Fiennes in his most moping performance to date as Todd Jackson a blind ex-patriot former diplomat living in 1936 Shanghai in the days leading up to the Sino-Japanese War. Fiennes’ tedious acting is only intermittently upstaged by Ivory’s meandering direction. Natasha Richardson is suitably coarse as Sofia Belinsky an exiled Russian countess working as a taxi dancer when she isn’t being emotionally abused by her repulsive family attempting to distance Sofia from her young daughter Katya (Madeleine Potter). Jackson eventually opens the bar of his dreams and hires Sofia to serve as its countess of ceremony before the outside world comes crashing through his fantasy world in the guise of the Japanese military.

Meant as a brief, not epic, meditation on the social climate of Shanghai before the Japanese invasion, "The White Countess" gets bogged down in its attempt at uniting the intimate realities of its two romantically inclined main characters with their outside world. James Ivory would have done well to take his from "Casablanca" since that similarly themed film achieves everything that this film aspires to but ultimately fails at.

Unlike Bogart’s character Rick in "Casablanca," Jackson has to bet his life’s savings on a horse race before he can open a nightclub that he hopes will serve as a crucible for foreign dignitaries and street urchins alike. Jackson nurtures his casual friendship with Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada) a Japanese businessman who promises to bring members of political rival factions into Jackson’s cabaret. But the plot promise is never paid off and the audience barely gets a glimpse of any interaction within the well-appointed club.

Kazuo Isiguro’s unbalanced screenplay lacks sufficient momentum to pull the characters out of their individual backstories and into the vibrant spin of pre-WWII China. When the film’s overdue third act climax occurs, we still don’t know enough about the area’s political conditions to have a sense of who the military players are or what their options might be. Jackson’s mysterious associate Matsuda plays a crucial part in the Japanese invasion but even his motivations are kept too opaque to grasp. "The White Countess" is about two people living in an unfamiliar country with literal and figurative blinders on to the immediate threats around them. It’s a story of the blind leading the blind. I wish I could have closed my eyes.

Rated PG-13, 135 mins. (D+)

February 17, 2006 in Drama | Permalink