- The Washington Times - Friday, January 20, 2006

Like many movies, the his - torical romance “The White Countess,” set in Shanghai in the 1930s, derives from a novel. Unlike the typical adaptation, it evolved in ways that took it far from the source material — so far that director James Ivory came to regard it for all practical purposes as an original screenplay.

Mr. Ivory and his leading lady, Natasha Richardson, were in the area recently to introduce the movie, written by the Japanese-born British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, at a preview screening at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre. Officially a 2005 release, “The White Countess” opened yesterday at Washington-area art houses.

As the title character, Miss Richardson plays a widowed and exiled White Russian noblewoman who finds herself reduced to shady employment in a Shanghai saloon.

The production company Mr. Ivory shared with his late partner, Ismail Merchant, who died at age 69 while “Countess” was being edited in London, acquired a Japanese novel by Junichiro Tanizaki titled “The Diary of a Mad Old Man.” It had been filmed in Japan in the early 1970s. Mr. Ivory, a lean and soft-spoken figure at 77, was interested in a revamp that would allow him to contrast urban settings, ostensibly Tokyo and Boston.

“We got the rights after a tremendous amount of negotiation with the author’s family,” he recalls. “We had also kept up our friendship with Kazuo Ishiguro.”

This association dated from one of the major critical successes for Merchant-Ivory, their 1993 film version of Mr. Ishiguro’s novel “The Remains of the Day.” It was adapted by the team’s trusted screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and reunited Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, already prestige co-stars in the Merchant-Ivory movie version of E.M. Forster’s “Howards End.”

Mr. Ishiguro was approached about adapting “Mad Old Man” and agreed to give it a go.

“He worked through a first draft,” Mr. Ivory says, “but admitted that he was losing interest with every page.When that happens, you can’t force a writer of his caliber to start over or keep slogging away. He resolved to do something else, a screenplay all his own.

“At about the same time, he was finishing a novel called ‘When We Were Orphans,’ set in Shanghai in the middle to late 1930s.His father was a boy at that time, and his grandfather had been part of the Japanese business community in Shanghai. The original source material all but disappeared, replaced by things Ishiguro had researched and family stories he recalled about the foreigners in Shanghai.”

Mr. Ivory hired a British cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, who had worked extensively in China. A stranger there himself, the director encountered familiar metropolitan vibes.

“I’d never been to China and wasn’t sure what to expect,” Mr. Ivory remarks.”What I found was a place that reminded me of New York.There’s a tremendous boomtown atmosphere. I think they may have even more skyscrapers.But there are also the pockets that preserve a lot of old Shanghai, especially in the French section.”

At the city’s sprawling movie studio, Mr. Ivory found a back-lot set that replicated parts of Shanghai in the period needed for his production.

“It was our greatest boon,” he observes.”A standing set of Shanghai in the 1930s, built for some movie years ago. It’s used over and over and over …It was built really solidly and authentically, with steel and brick and marble and glass.It wasn’t like a film set at all.”

In fact, Mr. Ivory discovered that this form of set construction had been typical of the entire industry.”All around Shanghai there are these abandoned movie sets that were built to last,” he says.”There was no shortage of labor, and no one seemed to care about the construction costs.”

Mr. Ivory began his principal casting with Miss Richardson, “for herself.”Then he got the clever idea of making “The White Countess” something of a family affair.

“We had worked with [Miss Richardson’s mother] Vanessa Redgrave in the past, so I thought of her as the heroine’s great-aunt, although Ishiguro had written her as a dim, sweet old lady.With Natasha and Vanessa on board, we thought, why not Lynn Redgrave as well?She was free and had done wonderful villainesses.

“Madeleine Potter we had worked with a lot, after introducing her as Vanessa’s protegee in ‘The Bostonians.’Her daughter, Madeleine Daly, was now of an age and temperament to be effective as the girl in our story.This is her first professional acting job.She had been approached to play one of the daughters in Jim Sheridan’s movie ‘In America.’For some reason, she didn’t accept the offer, but she was ready for us.”

Miss Richardson had three weeks of shooting with her mother and aunt.As the pivotal character, she began working earlier and stayed longer.The demands of the role made it impossible for her to see the country as extensively as she had hoped.

“It was my first trip,” she says, “and it seemed such a huge exotic adventure to go there.I thought I’d be able to visit Beijing and see the terra-cotta warriors and walk the Great Wall.Everyone was able to do that except me. Each time I planned a little getaway, the schedule tied me down.I did a lot of shopping but not a lot of sightseeing.”

Miss Richardson, who maintains residences in Manhattan and upstate New York with her husband, Liam Neeson, and their two sons, had appeared as a child in one movie that featured her mother, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” released in 1968. It was directed by her late father, Tony Richardson.

The only co-starring project between her and her mother had been a London stage revival of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” in 1993.

“Lynn and I had never acted together at all,” she recalls. “The three of us had a lot of time together once they arrived in Shanghai. It was a very, very difficult shoot, but there was a great sense of comradeship and looking out for each other. At the end of each day, we’d go back to the hotel, have a glass of wine and laugh about various obstacles encountered and hurdled.”

Miss Richardson credits the move to New York with liberating her from a sense of performing in her mother’s shadow.

“I wanted to make it on my own,” she says.”I didn’t want anyone to throw charges of nepotism at me.I wanted to learn and practice without undue attention when I was young.But it was hard, and I was bound to suffer by comparison.

“Once I was making headway, it angered me that my parents were still being mentioned all the time.I didn’t go to New York to escape that, specifically, but the happy byproduct was that I began to feel more appreciated for my own work. People who had seen a play or film tended to be genuinely enthusiastic and encouraging. The names ‘Redgrave’ and ‘Richardson’ ceased to be a lead item.They became footnotes.”

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