13 November 2005 | kate_lee-movie
Perhaps not Ivory's best
I had an opportunity to see this movie at a screening. The White Countess is not scheduled to open in theaters until December, so it was a very early screening. I am saying this because I have a little bit of doubt that what I saw was the final cut.
Based on a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Saddest Music in the World, and the original novel for the movie, Remains of the Day), and featuring a magnificent cast (including Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave in addition to Fiennes and Richardson), this last Merchant-Ivory film (Ismail Merchant died this year) has bred a great expectation in movie lovers' hearts. I regret to say what I saw was not the best of Merchant-Ivory.
It is Shanghai in 1930s where all different sorts of Europeans and Americans established their ways of living inside the ancient Chinese city. The story is about an American middle-aged man who lives in a world inside his head, blind to the world around him. Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) is a former American diplomat who lost his vision. Yes, and yes—in both physical and psychological sense. He had buried his wife and a son after a house fire, and a few years after that, lost his only surviving child in a terrorist bombing incidence that also took away his sight. It is no surprise that the man is in a bitter despair. He becomes a man of lost faith. In his darkness, Jackson obstinately clings to and cultivates a rather esoteric ideal—creating a perfect nightclub. When Jackson meets Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson), a Russian Countess who is forced to work dishonorable jobs to support her dead husband's family and her daughter, he immediately sees in his head a perfect centerpiece for his dream club.
One thing that is extraordinary about this movie is the beautiful acting performance. Fiennes, often called the best internal actor of his generation, gives a stunningly exquisite performance as the blind man who resides in a world inside his mind—take just an example of the shadow of disappointment casting down on the lonely man's face when his new friend Matsuda bids him good night after a long night's conversation about nightclubs in Shanghai. It somehow makes cinematic sense that a person who cannot see other people's faces inadvertently reveals his soul with most minute movements of eyes and facial muscles. Although Fiennes' delicate features and willow physique do not quite conjure up the image of Humphrey Bogart to which the Jackson character curiously alludes, Fiennes makes a perfect bar owner in the style of Rick Blaine (Casablanca) meets Oscar Hopkins (played by Fiennes in Oscar and Lucinda).
Richardson wonderfully materializes "the perfect combination of the erotic and the tragic" and gives a heart-breaking performance as the aristocratic woman fallen to the reality of a horrid and abject life, and a mother who is going to do anything to save her child's future.
And so—here I am facing the unpleasant task of talking about the rest—it is pity that the director James Ivory lets these actors stand there bare and alone. Hardly any cinematic device is utilized to foreground the emotion or romance of this couple. The result is quite devastating. The romance sparkles moment by moment through the wonderful work of these two talented actors, but those moments do not connect well with each other, lost and found and lost again. Some scenes seem to need more editing work. For example, the horse race scene looks like a raw material from a daily—very awkward. For the lack of romantic fire, the screenplay is partly at fault in its meagerness. Although it contains an abundance of intriguing metaphors and keen observations on human lives, the screenplay does lack something—be it suave packaging of romance or absorbing dialog. But ultimately, I blame the director for not coming up with solutions to make the whole thing work better.
I normally love Ivory films. I don't know why this one did not work for me. Perhaps Ivory is not a man for romantic materials. Or perhaps the death of his partner, Merchant, took its toll on this film. In any case, if what I saw last night was the final version, Fiennes and Richardson might not be able to be rescued from this movie during this Oscar season.