Working from an original screenplay by the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, and collaborating for the first time with the genius cinematographer Christopher Doyle, clearly inspired James Ivory to take a greater number of risks – visually, dramatically – than he typically might. Ishiguro unfolds his story of lost romantics in 1936-7 Shanghai slowly, enigmatically. The film surrenders its narrative details at the pace of a reader turning pages in a book. Ivory doesn’t use voice-overs to tell us what to think or feel or know; reflecting the back-story of expatriated Russian nobility entirely in images, he expects us to work a little.
The White Countess isn’t like anything else in the Merchant Ivory canon I’ve seen; it’s a significantly, substantially better work (though also seriously flawed) than the muck for which these filmmakers have often been highly praised. I found their multi-Oscared adaptation of E.M. Forster’s great novel Howards End to be, more or less, a complete abomination, save for the apt performances of Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham-Carter, both of whom were astute casting choices as the sisters Helen and Margaret Schlegel. And yet The White Countess has been greeted quite tepidly, like a Valentine out of season.
Doyle’s work here isn’t as consistently innovative as his brilliant canvases in Hero or Rabbit-Proof Fence, yet it always fascinates to see his art re-invent itself in a new context, and in a couple of gorgeously shot and edited ballroom dancing sequences, in which snowflakes flurry as couples waltz, Doyle lives and breathes the rarefied elegance of Merchant Ivory just as surely and as lovingly as he embraced the trashed interiors and littered beaches of Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe. The ballroom flashbacks in Countess are stunning not only for Doyle’s contrast of stop-motion with speeded-up photography, these whirring snippets serve as the memories that Sofia (the title character played by Natasha Richardson) never speaks of. Reduced to being what in the 1930s was called a taxi dancer, Sofia carries inside her an exquisite longing for a time when dance was something beautiful, when women wore ball gowns and men were in officers’ uniforms, when twirling in a man’s arms was for pleasure and not a job to endure night after night. In one of Sofia’s remembrances of a more glamorous past, a gleaming chandelier occupies the upper center of the frame, viewed as if the camera were on the ground, gazing up at it from a great distance – an eloquent visualization du temps perdu; the sound design abets this with a solo piano, slowly picking out the waltz, and a train chugging, somewhere, in the far off.
There’s also a scene where Sofia and her young daughter Katya go down to the docks, hoping for a boat ride on the Soochow River. But Sofia doesn’t have enough money for the two of them, so the little girl skips off to the end of the dock and peers through the lens of a camera obscura. The interior black and white drawings of ships setting sail morph into a short, animated sequence – a river voyage as daydream – that’s like a kid-sized, cartoon version of the adult’s wistful fantasies. These dropped-in memories, wishes, and fancies don’t take you out of the film – they take you more deeply into it, into the characters’ internal sorrows.
In a sidebar variation of this, Ivory isolates the Ralph Fiennes character, Todd Jackson, in a scene at a horse race. As the other gamblers sit in the stands, Todd, a once-respected diplomat now largely out of favor, keeps to himself in a tent adjacent to the track, and when no one can see him, he pantomimes the motions of a jockey to the accompanying roar of the crowd. Playing an American, Fiennes has the Yankee accent and mannerisms down pat. He uses a slight haltering effect in his speech, similar to Jimmy Stewart, but not overdone. As with Fiennes’ Justin Quayle in The Constant Gardener, Todd’s impressive when he’s self-deprecating. Trying to describe his dream of opening a bar, he’s touching, vulnerable: a man who has nothing much left in life beyond his own peculiar brand of integrity.
The film was shot on location in Shanghai, and it’s worth seeing to take in the recreation of period detail, not only for the eye, but for the ear as well. There are spirited resurrections of hot club swing throughout The White Countess, excellent arrangements by John Huie that showcase those silvery trumpets and doleful clarinets, evocative use of such standards as “Sweet Lorraine” and “After You’ve Gone.” In an especially dreamy bit, Richardson (who looks pleasingly Garboesque in some shots) shares a stumbling, slow dance with Fiennes to Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.”
When images and music tell the story, all is well with The White Countess. Ishiguro’s dialogue hits a few dud passages (none of which will be quoted here), but in the nightclub settings, the musicians and dancers tend to upstage the stiff talk anyway. In a couple of scenes, when the singer Pierre Seznec performs melancholy Russian songs, he has a gypsy’s power to transfix us, and I wondered why Ishiguro and Ivory insisted on forging ahead with exposition.
The movie nonetheless has a superb climax at a boat dock, as the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War engulfs our dreamers and revelers. The final scenes are directed with an emotional rawness that’s surprising for Ivory. I’ve never felt a sadder “happy ending.” A ship sails, and Richard Robbins’s original orchestral score calls for an erhu to solo plaintively against a section of massed violins; the erhu develops the melodic line while the European instruments mark time in a sort of a repetitive, minimalist stasis. (George Gao is the soloist – he plays magnificently.) Then as a counterpoint to this, a Chinese trumpeter on board (Shu Zheng Hua) launches into an unmuted solo of “After You’ve Gone,” and I was dazzled by how Ivory, Robbins, Doyle and company brought all these conflicting personal and political layers into the forefront. The trumpet solo, matched visually by gray topsails billowing in the wind, might be heard as cautious optimism. Then again, given the perpetual states of war that mark history, and America’s largesse within that perpetuity, maybe not – NPT
January 28, 2006