The White Countess – Review

Directed by James Ivory
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Hiroyuki Sanada
135 minutes
Opens January 12, 2006

*** stars out of five

Set in the 1930s Shanghai, a blind American diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) and a beautiful Russian refugee (Natasha Richardson), who works as a club dancer and sometimes illicit jobs to support members of her once-aristocratic family, develop an unusual relationship. The story revolves around the chic nightclub, The White Countess, created by the diplomat to shut out the realities of war, turbulence and loss that surround and engulf him.

This project is the last collaboration between the producer Ismail Merchant, who dies just before completion of The White Countess, and director James Ivory. With all its artistry, exotic settings and a sophisticated tone, this film makes a good attempt in capturing the complex and volatile political unrest of a country under siege. The dialogue, and a lot of it, drags the pace of the movie. It isn’t until the end, with the vivid scenes of the Japanese invasion, that the storyline picks up nicely.

The movie’s best feature is its strong female cast. The talents of the three members of the dynamic Redgrave family grace the screen. Natasha Richardson is wonderfully elegant as the Countess Sophia from beginning to end – probably one of her best roles ever. Lynn Redgrave plays her sister, the judgemental Aunt Olga, with finesse and Vanessa Redgrave is superb as the mother. (These three should get together more often!) Also, a solid performance by ten-year-old Madeleine Daly who straddles her professional debut role of Katya.

Even though Fiennes is top notch as the romantic hero, Todd Jackson, the sound of his voice and dialogue are at times monotonous. Despite some flaws, if you enjoy war romances this may be the one to check out.