In The White Countess, Ralph Fiennes plays a disillusioned ex-American diplomat and Natasha Richardson a Russian countess working as a prostitute and dance-hall girl.
This formally elaborate, if emotionally off-kilter melodrama, regretfully marks the final Ismail Merchant/James Ivory collaboration, one set in Shanghai in the late 1930's. The original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro relates some telling moments in the life of the countess. But, in spite of some poignancy felt near the climax, the overrall effect is more dreary than fulfilling.
As Todd Jackson, Fiennes nicely underplays his blindness which is revealed later, and, as Sophia Belinsky, Richardson exudes sensitivity and sensuality, as she supports her young daughter with the discountenance of Olga (Lynn Redgrave) and Sarah (Vanessa Redgrave), her in-laws.
The story centers on the growing relationship between Todd and Sophia as he realizes his dream of running a posh establishment where one could enjoy music, women, and dance. Its name conveys the title for Sophia, as she becomes the main hostess, the "centerpiece."
The refined production is aided in part by the designs of Andrew Sanders and the tempered lensing of Christopher Doyle, which sets the mood for committed efforts by Fiennes (The Constant Gardener) and Richardson, most remembered in films like The Parent Trap and Widow's Peak.
Todd can wager big at the race track and win in spite of his physical condition. Matsuda, finely understated by popular Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada, is Todd's urbane driver with a dissoluteness in his past.
As Richardson seems to be battling with her accent, which sounds more Eastern European, so may even the astute arthouse patron be saddled with the staging of a halcyon before the more incisive, detrimental plans on behalf of the Japanese. The upcoming restiveness helps to overcome some routine elements like moments occurring in Ishiguro's novel "The Remains of the Day."
Yet, for all of its distinguished attributes, especially in director Ivory and late producer Merchant, The White Countess is a floundering period piece with hardly the vibrant coherence of Casablanca which it fleetingly resembles.