The White Countess
2006Director: James Ivory
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave
atching The White Countess, the last of the turgid Merchant-Ivory productions, is like that feeling you get when you wake up and it doesn’t feel like you’ve actually slept. As the credits rolled, I didn’t feel I had actually watched a film. I remember sitting down, lamenting the sticky floor of the theatre, reclining, angling my pretty head toward the screen. Black whirlpools. And then the end credits. Apparently the film is 138 minutes long. News to me. However, under extensive hypnosis and regression therapy, I am able to recall three things: my previous life as Samarian slave-girl, my latent xenosexual self-abuse, and the torrid sense of loss I feel having, after all, watched The White Countess.
A particularly off-form Ralph Fiennes with a bad accent, becomes obsessed with the Shanghai nightlife and a fallen Russian aristocrat played by Natasha Richardson. Blinded, he opens a nightclub, which is to serve as a haven in the troubled times of a city inching toward its collapse. The setting, unfortunately, pits the film against the von Stergberg classics Shanghai Express and The Shanghai Gesture. These sexy character-driven films, even while stuffed with crude Orientalisms, knock The White Countess for six.
A script written by the masterful Kazuo Ishiguro, with the stylised expertise of Christopher Doyle’s camera, deserves a better director than James Ivory. In fact, this is the type of script that makes for a true classic. It has the potential of a Casablanca, but both Fiennes and Ivory whittle the vital eroticism down to a dull, impotent stub. In a time when writers of movies are lucky to find themselves on the poster of the thing they created, it would have been intriguing to urge Ishiguro make the film himself. Directing a film, like fixing a car, is often overcomplicated by those who do it for a living. Which is not to say that there aren’t immensely talented and truly brilliant directors who can bring life and meaning to lesser material. But—seriously—if James Ivory can do it, anyone can. He has no particular mode of expression to call his own.
It can happen that a writer, the underlying meanings of the story so woven into their being, can pick up a camera and use it as it is supposed to be used: as a tool, like a pen, a simple means of expression, and manage to do so successfully. Clive Barker did this with Hellraiser, one of the most effective and immediate films of its genre. Michael Crichton may not be everyone’s idea of an artist (whatever that means), but Westworld is the best of fun and, twenty years on, is more vivid than The White Countess, which I only saw yesterday.
The major problem with the film is that there’s no electricity. The Lady from Shanghai evokes more mystique, allure, and wonder, despite never actually visiting Shanghai in the film’s timeline. A lot of money and effort seems to have gone into the film, apparently in flattening its contours, dulling its sensuousness. One thing I expect from a film about the debauched Shanghai of the 1930s is a little bit of dirtiness, a snatch of the nasty. But Ivory’s film, like Richardson’s pallid skin, is sallow, without any hint of sex or humour. The most damning description I have read about this film is that it is “soggy.” I can’t think of many things which are soggy that are also good. Soggy-hat, soggy-sandwich, soggy-breakaway solo single, soggy-bird-flu. It’s never a good thing.
The White Countess is a missed opportunity in the evenly inept hands of Merchant-Ivory. If only Eastwood, Coppola, or John Huston could have made this film with the post-coital vibrancy it demands. Those guys would have stroked it into life. If only the role had been around for William Holden, or even a 30-year-old Richard Gere. If only the titular character could have been played by Barbara Stanwyk or Marlene Dietrich. As it stands, however, shaped by the tame world-view of a bad filmmaker, this is one soggy-ass movie.