3½ stars (out of four)
A great cinematic partnership reaches its final chapter in "The White Countess" -- the last of the collaborations between director James Ivory and his late producer Ismail Merchant -- and, for me, it ends on a very high note, with a deeply evocative film, beautifully done. Set in 1936-37 Shanghai, "Countess" is a movie in the classic Merchant-Ivory tradition, blending character, atmosphere, high literary quality and social conscience with expert skill and subtlety, the resonant tale of a blind American ex-diplomat who hires a Russian emigre as centerpiece of his club, the White Countess.
If you loved "A Room With a View" and "Howard's End" -- and if you admired their earlier Indian films such as "Shakespeare Wallah" -- "The White Countess" relieves any frustration at the relative shortcomings of some of their work since 1993's "The Remains of the Day."
"The White Countess" is based not on a literary source (the usual Merchant-Ivory inspiration), but on an original script by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, author of "Remains." As usual, though, it boasts fine writing and an excellent cast, headed by Ralph Fiennes as Todd Jackson, and by three members of Britain's sterling acting family, the Redgraves -- sisters Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave and Vanessa's daughter Natasha Richardson -- as members of an emigre Russian family who've fled to Shanghai after the Russian Revolution. Supporting them, with equal power, are Allan Corduner as a Jewish neighbor and the Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada ("The Last Samurai," "The Ring") as a mystery man.
"Countess" has that shine and polish we expected in the best Merchant-Ivorys, a gleaming period luster usually achieved on what, for most moviemakers, would have been a mini-budget. It also has that bittersweet sense of squelched love and social entrapment that infused their best films.
"Countess" is a love story -- between Jackson and Sofia (Richardson) -- frustrated by Jackson's blindness and reticence and also by Sofia's shame at her previous Shanghai life. Working as a dancer and prostitute, she supported her sometimes-ungrateful family -- warm Aunt Sara (Vanessa Redgrave), prejudiced mother-in-law Olga (Lynn Redgrave), shrill sister-in-law Greshenka (Madeleine Potter) and Sofia's daughter Katya (Madeleine Daly) -- on her earnings.
An idealist politician turned aesthete, Jackson was once a driving figure in the League of Nations. Now, financing his club venture on a lucky horse race bet, he also may be the unwitting dupe of an enigmatic Japanese official, Matsuda (Sanada). Matsuda, who becomes his prime confidante about the White Countess, is described by others as a menacing fore runner of the Japanese army.
Though it doesn't derive from a novel, "The White Countess" has novelistic richness, ending with a great dramatic set-piece: a portrait of Shanghai in chaos as the Japanese armies take over.
All these emotional subtleties are carefully revealed; the acting is wonderful. Ivory has a great touch with sophisticated, theatrically expert casts, just as Merchant was an immaculate period producer, and "Countess" shows both men at their best. It also gives Fiennes another great 2005 showcase (after "The Constant Gardener" and "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"), while eliciting a genuine sentimental thrill by bringing together the Redgrave women. As Matsuda, Sanada projects a quiet menace that, suddenly and startlingly, reverses itself.
The Merchant-Ivory oeuvre, which began with 1963's "The Householder," developed one of the world cinema's most recognizable styles: realistic and idealized, deeply psychological and throbbing with romance. Their early films were shot in India, and the one picture they seemed born to make -- an adaptation of E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India" -- eluded them when it was directed in 1984 by David Lean. But in 1986, they adapted another Forster novel, "A Room With a View," and its surprise success ignited their later career -- which foundered after 1993 with some preachy sexual-politics biographies ("Jefferson in Paris" and "Surviving Picasso") and that sometime stumbling block for adapters, Henry James ("The Golden Bowl").
"The White Countess" is a return to what they did best. It reveals again that mix of Western and Asian cultures that also informed their work, most obviously in their early years. It's a very classy, finely made film, and, as one watches it -- particularly those last sweeping scenes of political turbulence and escape -- one feels both pain at their parting and grateful for what, together, they achieved.
`The White Countess'
Directed by James Ivory; written by Kazuo Ishiguro; photographed by Christopher Doyle; edited by John David Allen; production designed by Andrew Sanders; music by Richard Robbins; produced by Ismail Merchant. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 2:15. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some violent images and thematic content).
Todd Jackson - Ralph Fiennes
Sofia - Natasha Richardson
Aunt Sara - Vanessa Redgrave
Matsuda - Hiroyuki Sanada
Olga - Lynn Redgrave
Samuel - Allan Corduner
Greshenka - Madeleine Potter