The White Countess is the last of the Merchant Ivory collaborations (producer Ismail Merchant passed away in May), and while beautiful, it's a rather hollow bookend to their legacy. Set in the fascinating tumble of 1930s Shanghai—portrayed here as a colony of refugees and foreigners struggling to make a home of the colorful culture stew around them—Countess centers around Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), a former US diplomat who was struck blind in a tragic accident. The focal point of his lonely existence is an obsession with nightclubs, where the glamorous and excessive mingle, enjoying exotic performances and a culturally and politically scintillating mix of company. Jackson's dream is to open the perfect nightclub, and when he meets Countess Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson), he appoints her as the club's centerpiece, naming it The White Countess.
Having fled Russia, Sofia is now a poor woman supporting her dead husband's tightlipped, aristocratic family and daughter, disgracing herself by working in nightclubs. Slightly elevated in both economy and decency by Jackson's adoption of her, the two maintain a rather stiff friendship that eventually develops into romance... sort of.
Though brilliantly cast and well acted—and written by revered Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro—there's remarkably little passion in The White Countess, and what there is has been reserved to the last half hour of the film, to the extent that the film's somewhat happy ending comes off as a cross between a surprise and a compromise. (Surprise because the main characters' emotional connection to each other goes beyond subtle and actually approaches subterfuge; compromise because the two are essentially forced into a union by the warring tumult that surrounds them in Shanghai at the start of the Japanese invasion.) As a piece of historical fiction, Countess is impressive, offering a rich portrait of time and place that is very rarely seen in western cinema. But as a romance, it lacks ferocity—its main protagonists are guarded and inaccessible, making them difficult to relate to, not to mention there's zero chemistry between Fiennes and Richardson. Regardless, Countess is worth seeing for its scenery alone—or if you're seeking a love story that won't punch you in the guts.