The White Countess
I’ve always loved Merchant/Ivory films. Ever since I was introduced to A Room with a View, and later discovered the sumptuous Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day, I’ve been hooked on their exquisite style and literary grace. I’ve always found it odd and not a little bit delightful that the best movies about British life, particularly the life of England’s aristocracy, were the product of a collaboration between an American and an Indian.
The setting: a city suffused with refugees and the looming specter of war where a bar owner wishes to keep the world and all of its ghastliness outside his popular establishment. Inside there can only be music and love.
No, it’s not Casablanca, but there are surely worse comparisons, and if, while watching this film, Casablanca should be evoked, so much the better. Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) is a washed-up, blind American diplomat in China intent on opening the perfect bar while the rest of his countrymen carve up Asia’s economic interests. The centerpiece of his bar is the Countess Sofia Berinskyka (Natasha Richardson), a
destitute woman, cast off from her Russian homeland by a revolution that destroyed her way of life. Slowly these two people—partners in exile—will fall in love. But as the clouds of war with Japan gather, their fragile bond seems more tenuous than ever.
One thing that a Merchant/Ivory film has in spades is brains. Their films are among the most intelligent and literate anywhere. Too bad so many (lately) lack heart. While a beautiful and moving film, The White Countess, sadly falls short of being a great one because it never allows us into the hearts of its primary protagonists. We feel for their circumstances, but only peripherally for them.
This was producer Ismail Merchant’s final film. He died during pre-production. Roger Ebert said it best: “They (Merchant and Ivory) have been operating their own perfect little bar since 1963. Outside it is Hollywood, and the world is hurrying toward commerce and compromise. Inside their bar, cosmopolitan characters, elegant and tragic, have wandered out of the pages of good books…”
Too bad all good things must end.
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