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The White Countess (Sous-titres français)
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In this final film by Oscar(r)-nominated producer Ismail Merchant (1994, Best Picture, Remains of the Day), and Oscar(r)-nominee James Ivory (1993, Best Director, Howards End), 1930s Shanghai provides the backdrop for this exceptional drama starring two-time Oscar(r)-nominee Ralph Fiennes (1997, Best Actor, The English Patient; 1994, Best Supporting Actor, Schindler's List) as Todd Jackson, a diplomat blinded in a bombing. An encounter with Sophia (Natasha Richardson, Maid in Manhattan), an exiled Countess employed as a bar girl, inspires him to open his own club, but only if she will work for him. Sophia's in-laws (two-time Oscar(r)-nominee Lynn Redgrave) and Sarah (Academy Award(r) winner Vanessa Redgrave), greedily pocket her income, but denounce her as a bad influence on her daughter. When Japanese troops invade the city, a mass exodus ensues! Alone and afraid, Sophia clings to the only hope left to her - finding her missing daughter!
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Currently, Jackson is the Director of a thriving Shanghai company but he longs to create a nightclub and cabaret where the different internationals in Shanghai can mix without consideration of their national and political differences. The other Directors of the company are contemplating elminating him from the company by buying out his shares but they hesitate due to his recent tragic accident. He spends his free time visiting bars and dance clubs, experiencing the seedier side of the Shanghai lifestyle ... At one such bar, he meets a Japanese businessman Mr.Read more ›
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As usual in Merchant Ivory productions, the casting is meticulously thought out. This film is no exception. The Redgrave clan, led by the quitely luminous Natasha Richardson, and Ralph Fiennes turn in such spectacular performances that capture the audience so well that you don't even mind the sluggish pace of the narrative. In fact, you can't think of anything better to do than sit through the slow-moving 2-hour-plus film and watch these actors deliver their lines and watch them play beautifully off each other.
Richardson (who, incidentally, should really make more films) gives a soft and nuanced performance as the totally believeable exiled Russian countess. The cinematographer takes excellent advantage of her elegant beauty. Fiennes is not quite as believeable as a fallen American ex-diplomat, but hey, it's Ralph Fiennes, and we always enjoy watching him on the screen. The romance between the bar owner and his countess is brilliantly understated. What I adore most about Merchant Ivory love stories is that the characters are allowed to quietly simmer. The attraction between Jackson and Sofia is evident from the moment they appear on screen together, but the audience is always left wanting more. A brief outburst of passion is quickly dampened and (while other blockbusters would have the couple in bed half-naked) the characters go back to their outwardly-platonic relationship. Richardson and Fiennes have excellent chemistry and we are almost left frustrated by the lack of open intimacy between them. But then we remember the personal losses sustained by both parties, and we forgive them.
The set direction, as usual, is visually sumptious. No detail is left uncovered and no measure too great. Perfectionists in every department, I tell you. A wonderful job recreating the sets, and quite a feat, considering everything was shot on location, though most authentic locales couldn't be used due to modern structures around it. The costumes are beautiful, with every character in character. The accents affected by the mostly British cast is not overdone and doesn't get in the way. The cinematography is to die for. Brilliant, brilliant shots across the board.
In short, a beautiful film and through its flaws, a perfect mixture of two tragic lives.
I don't know why I felt the film was not a story but a situation. Maybe because of its slow pace. The spectator has the time to enjoy the splendid reconstitution of Shanghai of the 30's. Ivory's talent to generate a `very special atmosphere' makes me green with envy.
No visible sex, or violence, little action and yet the suspense builds to a crescendo driving you step by step towards a dreaded end. ("Oh my God, if it ends badly I die"). How is the gorgeous, blind, British diplomat going to avoid all the traps in front of him? (Caught in the mob running away from the Japanese army!) Argh! The scene where he stands alone in front of them! I was half way down my seat. How will the beautiful Russian countess react when her own family betrays her? I could not believe the ending! I had to climb back on my seat!! A rare stylish romantic film like they don't do anymore!
"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.
On the other hand when you have the graceful, beautiful Natasha Richardson as a Russian Countess down on her luck in late 1930's Shanghai making ends meet and supporting her horrible family (literally and figuratively as her aunt Lynn and mother play her aunt and mother here) by selling dances for a few coins...how can you go wrong?
Richardson saves this film from being a total disaster with her emotional, sad, seen-it-all and then seen-it-all again portrayal of a woman who had to give up everything: money, clothes, position, a country in order to save her life, the life of her daughter and the lives of her aunt and mother.
Except for the elegant performance of Richardson, "The White Countess" is pretty much a mess: even Ralph Fiennes, usually so good in this type of role; here as a former diplomat blinded by a freak accident that also killed his wife and daughter, is unable to make a connection to his over-written character and consequently with us also.
"The White Countess" is another story of a film with an exalted pedigree that fails to ignite into anything resembling a great film. As it is, it's a good film with a great central performance and I guess for this we should be grateful?
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