The Merchant-Ivory duo, specialists in all things classy and costumed, bows out on solid ground with “The White Countess,” a dramatically inconsistent yet beautifully performed period saga set in Shanghai before World War II.
The last act of the venerable filmmaking team after the death last May of producer Ismail Merchant, “The White Countess” arguably is their strongest work of the past decade, which has produced a string of fitful and disappointing films despite the commercial success of “Le Divorce.”
The film caps a magnificent year for Ralph Fiennes, marking another captivating embodiment of a lost soul on a mission after “The Constant Gardener,” his turn as the evil Voldemort in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” sandwiched between.
“The White Countess” pales next to the best of Merchant and director James Ivory’s films, “A Room With a View,” “Howards End” and “The Remains of the Day,” though it shares the latter’s curiously satisfying sense of romantic restraint and emotional distance.
Such moderation is a cornerstone of much of Merchant and Ivory’s work, but it is more pronounced in “The White Countess” as they collaborate again with novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, author of “The Remains of the Day.”
This time, Ishiguro has crafted a thoughtful original screenplay about an unlikely, understated romance that develops with almost monastic propriety between a once illustrious American diplomat and a Russian noblewoman living in impoverished exile.
Todd Jackson (Fiennes) is a shell of the powerful man he once was, an architect of the League of Nations and a famed negotiator on Asian issues. Suffering repeated tragedies that cost him his family and his eyesight, Jackson lives a tempered life in 1936 Shanghai, chatting up various nationals at bars, idling time away at the racetrack and spinning visions of opening his dream club, a haven for fraternization among clientele of all nations.
Jackson becomes intrigued with Countess Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson), who works as a dance-hall girl and prostitute to support her young daughter and her extended family of Russian aristocrats displaced by the Soviets.
An unexpected financial windfall allows Jackson to open his club, which he names the White Countess. Sofia, eager to leave her sordid life behind, jumps at Jackson’s offer to work as hostess and is surprised the job offer comes with no romantic strings attached.
What follows is a slow and meandering — sometimes too slow and meandering — story of kinship and the hint of love that could blossom into passion for two lonelyhearts who thought they had left such things behind amid life’s cruelties.
While the drama between the characters is at a near standstill early on, it opens up in the film’s final third with a rich and moving resolution amid the Japanese occupation in 1937.
Jackson makes a nice counterpoint to the British diplomat Fiennes played in “Constant Gardener,” that earlier role centering on an irresolute man shocked out of his impotence, “White Countess” presenting a strong man battered into inertia and gradually coaxed back to willfulness.
If there were an Academy Award for delivering two great performances in a year, Fiennes might be an easy winner. He imbues Jackson with a conflicting mix of melancholy and playfulness, underscored by traces of healthy ego left over from the man’s days as an international player.
Fiennes’ American accent is as convincing as his German one in “Schindler’s List,” and Richardson likewise speaks in a remarkably authentic Russian voice.
Richardson blends defiance and tired resignation in Sofia, a privileged woman unflinchingly doing what needs to be done in her new life of squalor.
Filling out the excellent cast are Lynn Redgrave and Madeleine Potter as in-laws who disapprove of Sofia’s lifestyle even though they live on her charity and self-sacrifice; Vanessa Redgrave and John Wood as Sofia’s kindly aunt and uncle; Allan Corduner as a sympathetic neighbor; and Hiroyuki Sanada as a mysterious Japanese man who befriends Jackson.
While it will not be remembered alongside the best of Merchant and Ivory, “The White Countess” stands as a wistful farewell to one-half of that partnership that lasted 44 years and produced more than 30 films.