"The White Countess" was the final production of the creative team of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, who died in May 2005. The director-producer duo is probably known best for its elegant and emotionally sharp period films, a canon to which "The White Countess" aspires. Written by Kazuo Ishiguro, "The White Countess" takes place in Shanghai, China, a city of extraordinary variety, refuge and playground for the world's exiles and expatriates, on the brink of Japanese invasion in 1936. White Russian Countess Sophia Belinskya (Natasha Richardson) works as a taxi dancer to support her young daughter and deceased husband's family, who live in poverty in Shanghai, dreaming of the elegant lives they lost to the Revolution. Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) was a distinguished American diplomat before he lost his eyesight and family to violent accidents. Having acquired a certain recklessness, he wants to open a night club, where he will engineer the staff, entertainment and patrons to create a melodious and exciting blend of elements superior to any other club in Shanghai. Countess Sofia has the perfect blend of elegance and tragedy to be Jackson's "centerpiece". And she is only too happy to leave behind the desperation of the dance hall to become the hostess of The White Countess. So an uneasy relationship develops between these 2 people whose lives are dominated by loss.
"The White Countess" isn't a bad film, but it doesn't have much for the audience to grab hold of. The relationship between Todd Jackson and Countess Sofia is so distant that it doesn't engage us. We get a peek at the lives of exiled Russian nobility in Shanghai, but not enough information to learn much about that population. The re-creation of 1930s Shanghai is interesting. The ambience is conspicuous. But the relationships are unrealistic. The behavior of a Japanese imperialist named Mr. Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada) strains credibility beyond the breaking point. These characters are interesting, but they don't ring true. So the necessary empathy is not forthcoming. Natasha Richardson does have an enchanting presence in this role, however. The cast is certainly talented. And it's a family affair: Natasha Richardson is accompanied by her mother Vanessa Redgrave as Sofia's Aunt Vera and aunt Lynn Redgrave as Sofia's stern, ungrateful mother-in-law Olga. Sister-in-law Greshenka and daughter Katya are played by mother and daughter Madeleine Potter and Madeleine Daly. I hope to see a film someday that makes better use of the fascinating pre-war jumble of cultures in Shanghai. Natasha Richardson is reason to see "The White Countess". Like the Countess, she conveys the right combination of mystery, tragedy, and sensuality to keep our attention.
The DVD (Sony Pictures 2006): Bonus features include 3 featurettes and an audio commentary. "Behind the Scenes of The White Countess" (11 min) features interviews with director James Ivory and the cast in which they speak primarily about the film's characters. In "Making of The White Countess" (13 min), James Ivory, production designer Andrew Sanders, costume designer John Bright, choreographer Karole Armitage, and cinematographer Chris Doyle, among others, talk about recreating 1930s Shanghai in modern Shanghai. "A Tribute to Ismail Merchant" (13 min) is a bio of Merchant's film career and his maverick personality through archival interviews with Merchant, friends and colleagues. There is a good audio commentary by director James Ivory and actress Natasha Richardson that touches on many aspects of making the film: sets, photography, hair and make-up, casting in China, actors, etc. Richardson keeps the commentary moving along at a nice pace, prodding Ivory on a variety of subjects and discussing her own performance. Subtitles for the film are available in English and French.