The White Countess
When refined English actors put on studious American accents, the problem isn’t that you can hear the ghost of their British inflections echo through. It’s that too often, their expressive mojo gets absorbed into all that rehearsed linguistic fakery. That’s just how Ralph Fiennes, speaking in jarringly sculpted low tones, sounds in The White Countess — like a guy doing a schoolbook impersonation of a straight-talking, ”normal” American. Yet such is Fiennes’ suppleness as an actor that he makes the boldly exaggerated, rounded-vowel, ersatz-Yank sound work for him. It helps that he’s playing a blind man; deliberation is built into his being. As Todd Jackson, a former diplomat and would-be nightclub proprietor hanging around 1936 Shanghai, Fiennes wears a bow tie that’s meant to evoke Bogart’s in Casablanca, but he’s courtly and sweet where Bogie was gruff. He’s a true contradiction — a mandarin dreamer.
Natasha Richardson, radiant enough to play Anna Karenina, is Sofia, an exile of Russian royalty who supports her family as a taxi dancer and prostitute (they live off her money and despise her for her ”sin”). When she meets Jackson, the sparks fly, though mostly from his direction; we hardly know whether to root for him or feel sorry for him. The White Countess is the final film from the team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, who had worked together since 1963 (Merchant, the producer, died last year), and it’s a pleasure to report that their swan song, written by Kazuo Ishiguro, is a gilded-canvas work of graceful and touching skill — a repressed love story that basks in smoky wisps of period intrigue.
Jackson, in search of a cocoon, is oblivious to the storm brewing between the Chinese and the Japanese, so he sets up the bar of his dreams: the White Countess, where the usual pleasures (drinking, dancing, the mingling of men with power) are distinguished by a luminous civility. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that this oasis of romance amid the turmoil of Shanghai represents the way that Merchant and Ivory, for 40 years, saw themselves: as a sanctuary of calming, life-size taste in a movie culture grown coarse. It was often far from perfect, but I’ll miss that sanctuary.