Introduction

The White Countess

The White Countess
  • Country of production: UK/USA/Germany/China
  • Year: 2005
  • Certificate: PG
  • Director: James Ivory
  • Running time: 135 minutes
  • Official website: www.sonyclassics.com
 

The White Countess is the final film from the acclaimed producer-director partnership of ISMAIL MERCHANT and JAMES IVORY, made before Merchant's sudden death in 2005. Set in Shanghai in the late 1930s, KAZUO ISHIGURO's original screenplay charts the relationship between blind American ex-diplomat Todd Jackson (RALPH FIENNES) and penniless Russian émigrée Countess Sofia (NATASHA RICHARDSON). Jackson dreams of opening his own nightclub, his retreat from a world from which he feels increasingly alienated. Enchanted by the Countess's dignity and compassion, he hires her to be the club's hostess and "centrepiece".

Countess Sofia has "the allure of tragedy, the weariness" that Jackson wants for the mood of his club. In fact both lead characters are troubled and this underpins their tentative but touching romance. Building his nightclub to insulate himself from the intrigue and disappointments of the outside world's "broader canvas", Jackson is a damaged man, scarred by the death of his daughter in the terrorist explosion that blinded him. The widowed Sofia, meanwhile, fears the loss of her daughter as her demanding in-laws attempt to separate them, scandalised by her "immoral" earnings.

The first Merchant-Ivory movie to be shot in China, it is a typically rich portrait of a bygone era. The director of photography is CHRISTOPHER DOYLE, a virtuoso Australian cameraman based in Asia and best known for his collaborations with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai (such as on Chungking Express). He brings a terrific eye for local flavour to the picture, and his loose, handheld style is fresh and urgent.

Re-view

The White Countess

The Shanghai depicted is a city of extraordinary vitality and contrast. Its narrow streets teem with energy and colour, the business of countless stalls and shops conducted in a blur of activity. But for the many Westerners stranded on the unfamiliar shores of this harbour city, Shanghai is a place of sadness and loss. Impoverished Russian aristocrats crowd into dingy one-bedroom apartments. A Jewish tailor does his best to settle his family after fleeing persecution in Europe. American businessmen are driven from one nightclub to another, drunkenly divorced from their strange surroundings. And all the while, rumours of an imminent Japanese invasion rumble on in the background.

But for all the deft evocation of pre-war China, our interest is in the world inside the White Countess nightclub and the characters who populate it. The club is intended as a microcosm of the city's precarious political and cultural balance, David Jays noted in Sight & Sound. John Hazelton in Screen International likened it to a less raunchy, Chinese version of the politically charged nightspot in Cabaret. Writing in The New York Times, Stephen Holden described the film as a cross between Casablanca and The English Patient, with Japanese agent Matsuda (HIROYUKI SANADA) The White Countess's answer to Claude Rains's cynical, all-knowing Captain Renault in Casablanca.

'[Merchant and Ivory] have been operating their own perfect little bar since 1963. Outside it is Hollywood, and the world is hurrying toward commerce and compromise. Inside their bar, cosmopolitan characters, elegant and tragic, have wandered out of the pages of good books.'

(ROGER EBERT, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES)

Ivory foregoes an epic study of a city in crisis for the subtle and poignant interplay between his characters. He is greatly assisted in this by a cast of formidable range and renown. Ralph Fiennes brings a soulful melancholy and tired charisma to the part of Jackson. Natasha Richardson is haunting as Sofia, an affecting combination of brittle vulnerability and steely resourcefulness. And, as we've come to expect from Merchant-Ivory, the supporting players are exemplary: Richardson's real-life mother and aunt VANESSA and LYNN REDGRAVE are cast in the roles of Sofia's aunt and sullen mother-in-law. Their scenes together crackle with unspoken familial tension and love as this once-rich family copes with the privations of poverty in their gloomy apartment - so small they operate a shift system for using the bed.

The White Countess boasts performances that are uniformly superb, a rich and intoxicating sense of atmosphere, and a rare emotional depth. It is a fitting reminder that cinema will be poorer for the loss of Ismail Merchant.

 
Pro-files

The White Countess

JAMES IVORY

DIRECTOR

Alongside his producing partner Ismail Merchant, James Ivory is one of Britain’s most respected film-makers. Best known for beautifully crafted adaptations of literary classics (many with screenplays written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), the Merchant-Ivory brand is a byword for the kind of quality cinema in which Britain excels. But like Merchant, Ivory isn’t British: he’s American and remained in California, where he was born in 1928, until the late 1950s, when he studied film.

Ivory’s early work was in documentary. He first collaborated with Merchant on The Householder (1963) about a young Indian man seeking advice over his marriage troubles. Shakespeare-Wallah (1965), revolving around an English theatre troupe in India, was critically acclaimed, but their international breakthrough came with their 1979 adaptation of Henry James’s novel The Europeans, about an impoverished European countess visiting her wealthy American relations. Ivory went on to adapt two more James novels: The Bostonians (1984) and The Golden Bowl (2000). He has also filmed three novels by EM Forster, the first of which, A Room with a View (1985), about a young Edwardian woman’s romance in Tuscany, was a huge hit. Their other Forster adaptations were gay love story Maurice (1987) and Howards End (1992), a sensitive portrait of the relationship between two upper-class sisters and a rich industrialist’s family that won Emma Thompson an Oscar. Their next film, Remains of the Day (1993), a love story between a housekeeper and a butler in pre-war Britain, was also critically acclaimed. While best known for these period films, Ivory has also tackled biopics (including Surviving Picasso, with Anthony Hopkins), sprawling family dramas ( A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries) and contemporary comedies (including Le Divorce).

ISMAIL MERCHANT

PRODUCER

Born in Bombay in 1936, Ismail Merchant’s first producing credit was on the Oscar-nominated musical short The Creation of Woman in 1960. He had met Ivory the previous year and over the next four decades Merchant was to produce a string of award-winning popular hits on modest budgets, working with internationally respected actors in countries as diverse as India, Britain, France and the US. He has also directed his own projects, including The Proprietor (1996), starring Jeanne Moreau as a French novelist who reacquires the house of her youth that had been lost during the Second World War, and The Mystic Masseur (2001), based on a comic novel by VS Naipaul set in 1950s Trinidad. Merchant died in May 2005.

RALPH FIENNES

TODD JACKSON

Since making his film debut as Heathcliff in a 1992 version of Wuthering Heights after a spell at the RSC, the RADA-trained Fiennes has built up an enviable body of work. One of Britain's few A-list actors, Fiennes won acclaim when Steven Spielberg cast him as the sadistic concentration camp commander of Schindler's List (1993). Since then Fiennes has combined acting in big-budget Hollywood movies (notably the sci-fi thriller Strange Days in 1995 and last year's The Constant Gardener) with roles in smaller arthouse projects, such as Onegin (an adaptation of the Pushkin poem, directed by his sister Martha) and Spider (director David Cronenberg’s psychological drama in which he played a schizophrenic to great critical success). His Oscar-nominated performance in The English Patient (1996) established his credentials as a romantic hero, which he reprised in the J-Lo comedy Maid in Manhattan (2002). Last year he provided voice work for Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

NATASHA RICHARDSON

COUNTESS SOFIA

Daughter of film director Tony Richardson (in whose 1968 film The Charge of the Light Brigade she had a small part) and actress Vanessa Redgrave, Natasha Richardson trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama and performed a variety of award-winning roles on the London stage in the 1980s. Early screen performances include playing Mary Shelley in Gothic (1986), Ken Russell's version of the creation of the Frankenstein story, and a role in the First World War veteran drama A Month in the Country (1987). She made her US film debut as the heiress-turned-terrorist Patty Hearst in Patty (1988) and she continues to combine UK projects (such as the recent Asylum, a drama set in a psychiatric ward in the 1950s) with American movies such as Maid in Manhattan (co-starring with Ralph Fiennes). Richardson also maintains a stage career, with recent performances in London and New York.

VANESSA REDGRAVE

AUNT SARA

The White Countess is Vanessa Redgrave’s third performance in a Merchant-Ivory production, following Oscar-nominated appearances in The Bostonians and Howards End. The daughter of the distinguished English actor Michael Redgrave, her film career has spanned four decades. She came to prominence in Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 portrait of a London photographer, Blow-up. Collaborations with other renowned directors continued, with roles as diverse as a sexually obsessed nun for Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) and a victim of Nazi oppression in Fred Zinnemann’s Julia (1977), which won her an Oscar. Notable recent performances include the title role in Mrs Dalloway (1997), an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel about a woman unhappily married to an MP, and the 2002 TV movie The Gathering Storm, in which she played Winston Churchill’s wife.

LYNN REDGRAVE

OLGA

Sister to Vanessa and fellow actor Corin, Lynn Redgrave’s debut was in the 1963 period romp Tom Jones (directed by her brother-in-law Tony Richardson). Her breakthrough came in 1966 with the title role in Georgy Girl, which earned her an Oscar nomination, and another early lead role was alongside Rita Tushingham in Smashing Time, a 1967 comedy about Swinging London. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s she balanced a hugely successful stage career in the West End and Broadway, with supporting roles on screen. A run of acclaimed performances in the 1990s in well regarded films such as Shine (where she played the wife of Australian pianist David Helfgott) and Gods and Monsters (as housekeeper to a gay retired Hollywood director in the 1950s) marked a high-profile return to cinema. She recently co-starred alongside Ralph Fiennes in Spider.

HIROYUKI SANADA

Character MATSUDA

Born in Tokyo in 1960, Hiroyuki Sanada began his career as a teenager with small roles in Japanese films and has clocked up more than 50 screen credits. His performance in the 1998 Japanese horror Ringu brought him to the attention of audiences in the West, and he recently co-starred alongside Tom Cruise in the US-produced The Last Samurai (after a role in another period drama about the Japanese warriors, the acclaimed The Twilight Samurai, 2002).

Madeleine Potter

Greshenka

Best known as a stage actress, Madeleine Potter’s theatre credits range from productions of such classics as All My Sons to more recent work by the late Sarah Kane, as well as collaborations with both Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave. She made her screen debut in The Bostonians, the first of four performances for Merchant and Ivory’s producer-director team. Ten-year-old Madeleine Daly, who plays Katya, is her daughter and was cast in The White Countess, her first role, after accompanying her mother to dinner at Ismail Merchant’s home in London.

ALLAN CORDUNER

SAMUEL FEINSTEIN

British actor Allan Corduner has been performing in films since the late 1970s but his best-known role was playing Arthur Sullivan in Mike Leigh’s Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy in 1999. His subsequent performances include supporting roles in Ridley Scott’s Roman epic Gladiator and the 1950s-set abortion drama Vera Drake (for Leigh again) and TV parts in the comedy Fat Friends and in Friends and Crocodiles, Stephen Poliakoff’s ambitious drama set in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s.

KAZUO ISHIGURO

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Japanese-born and British-educated Kazuo Ishiguro has already collaborated with Merchant and Ivory, as author of the Booker Prize-winning novel Remains of the Day. His six novels cover a wide range of different locations and historical periods, from Europe to Japan and the 1930s to the present day. His 2000 novel When we were Orphans, which like The White Countess is set in Shanghai, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

 
Cinemas

The White Countess

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