- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

“The White Countess,” set in Shanghai in 1936-37, alludes to both a character and a place. The character is an exiled White Russian named Sofia Belinsky, a monotonously melancholy and long-suffering assignment for Natasha Richardson. The place is a nightclub named after Sofia by its proprietor, a retired and disillusioned diplomat named Todd Jackson, blinded in a calamitous accident years earlier and portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in fairly irresistible elegant-masochistic form.

A huge payoff at the racetrack allows Jackson to finance his dream of operating a fashionable watering hole in Shanghai, a hotbed of intrigue and menace as war between China and Japan approaches. He has encountered Sofia at the saloon where she toils, more decoratively than strenuously, as a bar girl and taxi dancer. With his track windfall as collateral, Jackson recruits her as the “centerpiece” of his own club, the hostess whose pedigree and glamour will symbolize its allure.

The widowed Sofia has been cushioning a family of once-titled ingrates from beggardom. A mother-in-law named Olga (Lynn Redgrave) and a sister-in-law named Greshenka (Madeleine Potter), also widowed, despise her for stooping to keep the Belinskys solvent in a slum flat above a tailor shop. They plot to exploit Sofia’s generosity long enough to engineer a separation, in which her young daughter Katya (Madeleine Daly) would be torn from a loving, if tarnished, mother and raised by her snobbish, priggish enemies.

There are more benign personalities in the flat: Vanessa Redgrave and John Wood as great-aunt Sara and great-uncle Peter Belinsky. Their purpose is not to oppress Sofia but to maneuver toward a potential escape route through connections at the French Embassy, enabling the exiles to vacate Shanghai for Hong Kong, rumored to be a thriving refuge for White Russians.

Two countdowns are manipulated in a leisurely way by screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro and director James Ivory. One will clear the way for a family retreat to Hong Kong; the other will shatter Jackson’s hopes and delusions for his nightclub, vulnerable to the outbreak of war and the agenda of a Japanese agent, Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada), who has insinuated himself with the hero as a preamble to eventual Japanese invasion and control.

There is enough skullduggery in play to keep a miniseries percolating. Some of the sneakiness attributed to the characters is enhanced by family-circle casting. Although more or less neglected by the character played by her mother, Natasha Richardson is targeted for spite and heartbreak by the character played by her aunt.

It turns out that Madeleine Potter and Madeleine Daly are also a mother-daughter tandem. Even without that gambit in the back of your mind, it would be impressively painful to observe the passion Miss Potter brings to Greshenka’s greediness to possess another woman’s child. Her performance is a realistic hair-raiser.

Filmed in Shanghai, “The White Countess” has become the final Merchant-Ivory movie, since producer Ismail Merchant died during the closing stages of the production. The film version of Mr. Ishiguro’s novel “The Remains of the Day” had been one of the team’s most prestigious projects, adapted by their regular screenwriting instrument, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Although derived from a Japanese novel, “Countess” is considered the equivalent of an original by all concerned, since Mr. Ishiguro was encouraged to deliver the freest of adaptations.

It isn’t free of somewhat moldy cliches and influences. Even some of the durably sound influences

notably “Casablanca” and the plays of Anton Chekhov — are invoked more slackly than one would desire. The notion of a sorrowfully redemptive romance between the semi-disgraced heroine and disabled hero remains more enchanting in theory than it is on the screen, where both Miss Richardson and Mr. Fiennes seem deprived of bang-up confessional scenes or love scenes.

It’s not unreasonable to find the ingredients of “The White Countess” absorbing and entertaining, even as you regret the movie’s poky, stilted, world-weary shortcomings.

TITLE: “The White Countess”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional sexual candor and violence in a wartime setting)

CREDITS: Directed by James Ivory. Produced by Ismail Merchant. Screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, loosely based on the novel “The Diary of a Mad Old Man” by Junichiro Tanizaki. Cinematography by Christopher Doyle. Production design by Andrew Sanders. Costume design by John Bright. Music by Richard Robbins.

RUNNING TIME: 135 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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