Tomoko Kikuchi, Sony Pictures Classics
The Merchant-Ivory film "The White Countess" cobbles together so many story and character elements from earlier, better Merchant-Ivory productions that it could have and maybe should have been called "The Remains of the Room With a View."
And yet this period drama isn't horrible. Actually, it's not a bad film for the long-time Merchant-Ivory partnership to go out on. (Producer Ismail Merchant died last year, making this film his final cinematic collaboration with director James Ivory.)
This talky, two-hour-plus film is definitely too long-winded, however. A little judicious editing might have made it more effective.
Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote the book that provided Merchant and Ivory with "The Remains of the Day," also crafted this tale, which is set in Hong Kong prior to the start of World War II.
Much of the story concerns Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), a former American diplomat who now dreams of opening his own nightclub there. And thanks to a well-placed wager, the blind widower finally has the cash to do just that. He's named the new club the White Countess, a tribute of sorts to Russian immigrant Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson).
Sofia has less ambitious dreams, however. She's become the primary breadwinner for her dead husband's family, former aristocrats who fled their homeland after the Russian Revolution. Unfortunately, she's had to take some pretty unsavory jobs, which has strained her relationship with Todd, who is clearly smitten.
Ivory's snail pacing doesn't serve either the story or the cast well, and the sometimes icy Fiennes is at his most aloof here, and he adopts an American accent that never really sounds convincing.
Richardson's performance is much warmer, and she does her best to make their characters' relationship believable.
And it is nice to see the Redgrave sisters Lynn, and Richardson's mother Vanessa working together, as two of Sofia's in-laws. Although, while Vanessa does steal a couple of scenes as an exiled princess, Lynn's role is pretty minimal."The White Countess" is rated PG-13 for some war time violence (mostly explosive mayhem), some brief gore, and some adult themes. Running time: 135 minutes.