The White Countess
Directed by James Ivory
Written by Kasugo Ishiguro

The new film from the team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory is certainly one of their best in years and may be the best film they ever made. It is a proud swan song for Ismail Merchant - serving in the Producer's role on this project - who died during the last stages of production in May of 2005.

Merchant-Ivory formed their company in 1961 and over the ensuing decades produced more than fifty films - many of them highly-regarded. But they are best known for their own films - more than thirty of them, most directed by Ivory and produced by Merchant - including The Bostonians, Room With a View , Howard's End and The Golden Bowl, in which they developed a style that became iconic - the "Merchant-Ivory look."

Many of their films have been adaptations of literary classics - like those named above, adapted from E.M. Forster and Henry James novels, or the more contemporary Remains of the Day- adapted from the Booker Prize-winning novel by Kasugo Ishiguro (who also wrote the screenplay for this film).

With beautifully re-created period settings and costumes, finely-crafted scripts (many from long-time collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), fine lighting and camera work, and beautiful, evocative scores, the partners and the creative team they developed were able to breathe cinematic life into the 'interior monologues" that characterized many of the books they chose.

The risk of such insular film-making, where the members of the team are all long-term collaborators, is that the critical voice may be stilled and special skills may turn into a sort of stilted parlor trick - like a five year old reciting the Declaration of Independence. Some of Merchant-Ivory's work shaded in that direction. Their least successful films were those where "the look" overwhelmed the characters and the substance of the story being told - but even those films are a visual feast and only "less successful" than the high standard they had set for themselves, rather than outright "failures."

At their best, the movies in the Merchant-Ivory canon combine "the look" - which set a new standard for period films - with compellingly told stories of interesting, multi-dimensional characters, embodied by some of the finest actors in the English-speaking world. The White Countess is one of these.

The story follows the fortunes of a former US Diplomat who has lost his family and his eyesight in service to his country and devotion to the ideal of the League of Nations, in the period of the Chinese civil wars following World War I. When we meet him, Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) is a badly-bruised idealist, watching his dream of peace disappear in the revolutionary chaos of China, the rise of Fascism in Europe and the emerging militarism of the Japanese.

His response is to gradually abandon the larger world and create for himself a well-insulated, closely-controlled refuge to which he can retreat. He dreams of creating an idealized version of the nightclubs - ranging from elegant (if slightly decadent) cabarets to dismal dancehalls that are little more than fronts for prostitution - that flourished in the "open city" that Shanghai became in the 1930s. With the influx of tens of thousands not only from China, but also from the upheaval in Europe in the decade that preceded the Second World War, the International City in Shanghai became a temporary haven for the deposed aristocracy of post-revolutionary Russia, Jews fleeing increasing persecution in their native countries and other displaced persons from around the world.

It is in one of the Russian emigres - Sofia, the Countess Belinsky, working as a taxi-dancer in a seedy "ballroom" to support her child and her late husband's family of titled parasites - that Jackson finds the personality, the symbol of elegance and refinement, around which his dream can crystallize. He creates "The White Countess" (as he names his nightclub, in her honor) in a paradoxical act of both defiance of and surrender to forces of "history" and "human nature" over which he has been cruelly shown he has no control.

But his refuge and strategy, which resonates meaningfully for Sofia, are no match for the inexorable march of larger events that eventually overwhelms his illusions of control but offers him one further chance to confront the world in a new way. The interaction between the personal and the political, the intimate and the global, the exquisite miniature of individual struggles and the broad canvas of international ones is the film's theme, and the possibility of positive change in difficult and destructive times, of embracing uncertainty in creative ways, and allowing oneself to be redeemed by the intensely personal, by faith in others, is the message.

Like several of their recent works, this film is a digression from the Merchant-Ivory "tradition" and shows significant freshness and originality in their work, while preserving many of the elements that have been among their greatest strengths. In that sense it is not so much a departure, but rather an expansion in new directions - a fitting note on which to end a creative career like Merchant's.

Another feature common to many Merchant-Ivory films is a delicate, supportive directing style that draws fine performances from actors. Of course, casting actors like Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Nick Nolte, Judi Dench, Daniel Day-Lewis and the host of leading talents who have peopled their films from the start doesn't hurt - but it's largely the quality of the scripts and the past productions that allows such talent to be signed.

Here the weight is carried by Ralph Fiennes and Miranda Richardson, both of whom give among the finest performances of the year. Fiennes gives Jackson a wholly believable air of defiant melancholy consistent with the history we know of him. He does a fine job with the technical task of conveying Jackson's blindness and his American accent is impeccable. But beyond that, he is able to make the inaccessible and self-contained ex-diplomat vulnerable and sympathetic without compromising the dignity of the character's self-imposed limitations.

Fiennes is an actor whose intense and focused energy has brought a charge to almost every part he has played, no matter the quality of the film. Here, working with exceptionally good material, he makes the most of it. His painful struggle towards change is both frustrating and inspiring to watch.

Miranda Richardson does an excellent job of embodying Sofia's presence and cultivation, as well as her hard-headed, pragmatic courage. She evokes a powerful maternal dedication, and her somewhat confused respect for the tradition her in-laws represent (and a real sympathy for their helplessness) makes her subservience to those who use her for their own purposes fully understandable.

In her relationship with Jackson, she shows that mixture of respect, growing affection, and fear of trespass that was a common stumbling block in developing meaningful relationships in the Edwardian era (and still is). Yet Richardson endows Sofia with an intelligence and an emotional directness and honesty that very credibly will not be denied.

The ensemble cast - which includes Richardson's aunt, Lynn Redgrave, playing Sofia's mother-in-law, Olga, and her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, playing Sofia's Aunt Sara - is uniformly fine. The attention to detail in the casting of the smaller parts is another hallmark of Merchant-Ivory films, and it is sustained here. In addition to the Redgrave sisters, who give lovely (and sometimes chilling) miniature portraits of their bedraggled but still self-important and cruel sense of entitlement, Madeleine Potter convinces as the wrenchingly-needy, spirit-starved sister-in-law Grushinka.

In a small but pivotal role, Potter's ten year old daughter Madeleine Daly plays Sofia's daughter Katya - slowly being seduced away from her mother by her calculating and emotionally deformed aunt. It's another credit to Ivory that he gets a simple, naturalistic performance from such a young actress. And British character actor Allan Corduner adds a further texture to the story with his energetic and captivating performance as the refugee shopkeeper Feinstein, the Belinsky family's downstairs neighbor.

The screenwriter, Kazuo Ishiguro, is a British writer of Japanese parentage who was born in Nagasaki and raised in the Surrey countryside of England. His prize-winning novel "Remains of the Day", a character study of the vanishing "servant class" in England in the first half of the Twentieth Century, first brought him to the attention of Merchant-Ivory as they developed a screen-adaptation written by Jhabvala.

The original screenplay he has produced here explores many of the same issues of loyalty, idealism, self-sacrifice and the possibility of transformation that informed that story. At its two-hours-plus length, there isn't time to detail the historical background alluded to - from the increasing opposition in China between the Kuo Min Tang and Mao Tse-Tung's Communists; to the Treaty of Versailles and the subsequent rise of Hitler and Mussolini in Europe; and the Russian Revolution and expulsion of the landed aristocracy under the Bolsheviks as well as the growing power and imperial aspirations of Japan, in the turbulent decades between 1918 and 1937.

Ishiguro gives his audience credit for some knowledge of history (a dicey gamble given the current state of education in America) and allows the socio-political context to remain vaguely outlined. His literate dialogue however, and his close observation of the specific conditions under which his characters live, which they create and by which they are formed, are clear, precise and rich with detail. Combined with the visual images framed by Ivory and Director of Photography Christopher Doyle, Ishiguro's language brings the situations to full-fledged life and skillfully delineates the web of interactions around which the characters' lives revolve - and out of which arise the central questions that provide the dramatic energy for the story.

Doyle (best know for his work with Asian directors including Wong Kar-Wai, Zhang Yimou and Chien Kaige as well as American independent directors Gus Van Sant and Barry Levinson) shows his skills here in blending with Merchant-Ivory's established style, particularly in the lavishly-lit interiors, while adding special gifts of his own. A master of motion photography, from crane and tracking shots to steadicam work, Doyle brings his fluid camera movement to sequences - particularly toward the end of the film - that capture the feel of a city in turmoil and the desperation and panic of the refugee population as well as any film I've seen.

The production design and costumes, by Andrew Sanders and John Bright respectively, are what we have come to expect of a Merchant-Ivory production - carefully created to enhance the sense of reality without ever distracting attention. The pace of John David Allen's editing is leisurely, almost painfully so, in places where the passivity of the characters and their sense of being trapped requires it, yet rapid and dramatic in the action sequences.

This is a fine film - wonderful to look at and using all of its visual power to advance a compelling story about engaging characters. It is in the first rank of Merchant-Ivory's work - along with outstanding films like Maurice, Room With a View, and Remains of the Day. It is a fitting tribute to Ismail Merchant, full of things to remember and remember him by.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.z