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The White Countess
3/5
R E V I E W   B Y   R I C H   C L I N E dir James Ivory
scr Kazuo Ishiguro
with Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave, Hiroyuki Sanada, John Wood, Allan Corduner, Madeleine Cooper, Madeleine Potter, Lee Pace, Wang Luoyong, Ying Da
release US 21.Dec.05,
UK 31.Mar.06
05/UK Sony 2h18

Shanghai surprise: Fiennes and Richardson

vanessa lynn sanada

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The White Countess Merchant-Ivory take on 1930s Shanghai with this gorgeously produced but emotionally aloof drama. It's an insightful story set against major historical events, but it's also rather dull and elusive.

Todd Jackson (Fiennes) is an American diplomat whose idealism survives after his wife and daughter are killed during riots, and he loses his sight. Then he finally gets the chance to open his dream bar-club, which he calls The White Countess after exiled Russian aristocrat Sofia (Richardson), who he hires as hostess. Sofia has a 10-year-old daughter (Cooper) and a family (including Redgrave, Redgrave and Wood) that doesn't appreciate what she must do to earn a living for them all.

Intriguing relationships fill this film, and they're cleverly explored by the screenplay and the cast. Fiennes impeccably captures Todd's charming optimism, which is shaded by his tragic past. Even his strangled, flat American accent doesn't weaken the character (see also Quiz Show, Red Dragon, erm, Maid in Manhattan). Richardson hauntingly captures Sofia's dazzling, fading splendour, also tinted with pain and desperation. And of course Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, and the other thespian stalwarts, provide sterling support.

Artistically, the film is spectacular. Christopher Doyle's cinematography captures raw beauty from the most intimate indoor setting to the sprawling expanse of refugees taking to the seas to escape the Japanese invasion. And Ivory beautifully portrays Shanghai's lively cosmopolitan culture--Chinese, Americans, Russians, Japanese, Jews, French, all jostling for a living. There's a nice echo of Casablanca in the whole idea of an American bar owner in an exotic, bristling city, but it's never overstated. But the plot refuses to become remotely gripping on any emotional level, which makes it drag badly.

Where the film works best is in the way it layers the story with the political upheaval of this time period, when Japan was on the rampage and the world was inexorably heading back into war. Sanada's mysterious Japanese businessman is terrific in his scenes with Fiennes, highlighting the film's central theme that it's simply impossible ignore what's happening out there in the world because, whether you like it or not, politics will change your life.

cert PG themes, violence 28.Nov.05

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2005 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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