The death of producer Ismail Merchant in May last year marked the end of an era for British film-making. As one half of the Merchant Ivory team, the “Ivory” being director James Ivory, his name has become synonymous with the kind of lavish costume drama which typified British films for much of the latter half of the 20th Century, teaming up on more than 40 film projects, including the much-loved adaptations A Room With A View (1985), Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993). The White Countess is the last product of this partnership, which has brought more intelligent and lavish versions of literary classics to the big screen than any other.
Teaming up again with The Remains of the Day novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, this time as screenwriter, it seems a shame that this is unlikely to equal that beautifully restrained tale of inter-war intrigue and love in either critical or commercial terms. Although this follows similar themes and is set during the same period, where The Remains of the Day received eight Oscar nominations, to date this has been almost completely overlooked in the various awards ceremonies.
Such oversight is hardly fair. Although Ishiguro’s earlier tale was tighter and more thematically consistent than this similar story of the growth of love between unlikely partners overshadowed by impending war, The White Countess has much going for it in its lavishly sprawling recreation of the ex-pat westerner community of mid-1930s Shanghai as the Japanese army advances.
At the centre of the whirling uncertainty of a country soon to be beset by foreign invasion lies Ralph Feinnes’ blind American diplomat and his dream of opening a nightclub, the star and host of which he hopes to be Natasha Richardson’s down-on-her-luck Russian Countess, expelled from her Motherland following the Bolshevik Revolution and forced to work as a dancer and prostitute to make ends meet. Superficially similar in idea to Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, where an ex-pat in 1930s Berlin befriends a nightclub singer as the Nazis rise to power, brought to the cinema in 1955’s I Am A Camera and more famously in 1972’s Cabaret, this is at once broader and more intimate in scope.
As with Isherwood’s stories, it is the tragic figure of the nightclub girl who forms the emotional heart, and Richardson is more than up to the task – amply assisted not only by Feinnes but also by her aunt, Lynn Redgrave, playing her mother, and her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, playing her aunt. The mournful, hopeless depression of this glamorous aristocrat bereft of all hope and removed from her former glory could almost serve as a metaphor for the fall of China, that once mighty Empire that lasted for 2,000 years before the Japanese invasion prompted its bloody overthrow – like Redgrave’s Countess, also by Communism.
Beautifully shot, acted and produced and with an intelligent and though-provoking script, this may not be as typically tightly restrained as some of the better-known Merchant Ivory productions, but it bears all the trademarks of its brilliance. This lushly historical cinematic experience is a suitably mournful end to a great film partnership, even if it has not received all the recognition it truly deserves.