"The White Countess"The filmmaking team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory brought the world so many fine literate films over the past four decades that it is a shame they finish out their collaboration with such a ponderous dud as this.
The former Russian countess of the title is Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson), who meets a former American ambassador named Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) while working as a dance-hall girl. Both have been pushed out of their positions by tragedy. The ambassador lost his family and his sight in the Asian upheaval following World War I, and the countess lost her position and future during the Russian Revolution.
Jackson dreams of opening the perfect nightclub and thinks Sofia would be the perfect hostess. Various side plots involving the international intrigues that would lead to World War II and subsequent revolutions in the East do nothing to alleviate the inconsequence at the heart of this story.
Kazuo Ishiguro (author of "Remains of the Day") wrote the screenplay, which only proves that anyone can have an off day. The movie marks a low for all involved, despite the seeming rightness of the ingredients. Fiennes alternates between the cadences of Mark Twain and Orson Welles as he attempts to symbolize American innocence abroad (blindness, anyone?). Richardson is wasted enough as a melodramatic countess lamenting her lost days of tennis by the villa, but the movie also drags in not one but two old Redgraves (Vanessa and Lynn), just to badger us with the clumsy symbolism of aristocracy in decay, all the while stumbling about in a senile state of its own.
It seems futile to write about a movie so painfully interminable as "The White Countess." But if nothing else, it serves as an unfortunate reminder of its makers' earlier works, many wonderful movies thankfully rereleased recently on DVD ("The Europeans" is one excellent example). It would be too bad if this film were itself a sign that the period drama is in a state of decline, lest no one would come along to carry the torch being passed by one of its longtime champions. S