(PG-13) 3 Stars
Natasha Richardson as Sofia
Shanghai, 1934. Todd (Ralph Fiennes) is a blind American diplomat wanting to open his own club. He meets Sofia (Natasha Richardson), a Russian countess now working as a dancehall girl and the black sheep of her non-working family. He wants her to work as a centerpiece at his dream club because she's "the perfect balance of erotic and tragic." A year later his dream comes true and she works for him so long as they don't talk about their lives outside the club.
Sounds like a platonic, butter-free version of Last Tango In Paris, right? Since this is a Merchant/Ivory film (sadly the last with the passing of producer Ismael Merchant last year), we get a tale of two unlikely people connecting (A Room With A View, Howard's End) with really good performances by Fiennes and Richardson.
Fiennes had a very satisfying 2005 (The Constant Gardner, Wallace & Gromit In The Curse Of The Wererabbit and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) and he gives us a subtle performance of a wounded man wanting to heal and help. Plus, he plays a blind man who doesn't need help without being an asshole about it (hi, Scent Of A Woman).
The film starts to falter a bit in the second half when the club is up and running. Political clashes come to a head in 1935. Will they run away together? What about her family? Her child? His nightclub? The film starts to feel like a Far East Casablanca (minus the love triangle). Not the ripoff level of say Havana and Barb Wire, but when people need to evacuate and papers are needed and opposite sides start shoving each other you're waiting to hear Todd say, "Here's not looking at you, kid," or, "We'll always have Shanghai." (I know, those were cheap, but the film doesn't go there).
The Merchant/Ivory films have been a mixed bag the last decade (Jefferson In Paris, Surviving Picasso, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, The Golden Bowl, Le Divorce). The White Countess will always be remembered as the last M/I collaboration. It should also be remembered for the two lead performances.