Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 16, 2006 8:49 pm 
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[Published on Cinescene.]

Merchant-Ivory go out in style

Ivory’s longtime producer Ismail Merchant died in May and this is their last collaboration. Typically, it features fine English actors -- Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson in the main roles and Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave as sisters -- and a rich, lush period setting -- 1930’s Shanghai – with lovely interiors, especially of exotic bars with singers so good you wish you could see and hear more of them. (You do see and here more of a sad, moon-faced Russian one, and there’s about enough of him.) There’s a harbor full of sanpans and sailboats and eventually, when the Sino-Japanese war gets going, full of bombs, and you could watch these scenes forever. To clinch that, they’re photographed by the incomparable Christopher Doyle – the style more conventional that he used in Wong Kar Wai’s classics doesn’t mean a lack of distinctive touches, including an especially rich and subtle color scale and angles consistently fresh without being obtrusive.

Glossy isn’t the word for Merchant-Ivory because that would suggest the tone-deaf experiences of American big-budget productions. Merchant-Ivory were never about money but about taste, delicacy, and knowledge of period and milieu. It’s true this now defunct team can be so correct it’s almost without a pulse, and some will see The White Countess that way. But take a better look. This movie (but of course it’s a “film”) is an experience we rarely get. It’s a portrait of world-weariness that’s beautifully solemn and fine-tuned, and it really is the end of an era.

The “white” in “White Countess” means “white Russian” – that is, pre-revolutionary aristocracy. Thirties Shanghai is seen as a place of émigrés and exiles. The Russian family of whom Natasha Richardson’s character (Countess Sofia Belinsky) a is member has fallen on such hard times the others must depend on her income as a taxi dancer in louche clubs, yet they look down on her and her. Her sister-in-law (she’s a widow) is forever trying to keep her away from her own little daughter, as a bad influence.

This subject matter for an English-language film is old-fashioned. So is having a group of Russians speak to each other in artificially accented English. . . though they occasionally break into French for just a bit, and speak a little Chinese.

All this is background for the brave, sad Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), a former American diplomat who’s a member of a management and investment company some of whose members want to let him go because he’s blind now from an accident. We don’t learn details till later and the way he holds back the details emphasizes his noble, long-suffering quality. He's such an elegant example of Stiff Upper Lip we have to keep reminding ourselves Fiennes is doing an American accent.

Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote Merchant-Ivory’s much admired Remains of the Day, is responsible for this screenplay, and its self-abnegation and sadness are typically his, as are the relationships between people who help and even love each other in their world-wary fashion, without ever getting close except for a few final moments.

A Japanese man called Matsuda (i.e., Mazda, the car company name, and perhaps a reference to Mitsubishi) inexplicably meets Jaclson in a bar and a bond develops between them over a love of the combination of sexiness, decadence, and discreet entertainment Shanghai’s better bars offer, in their view. Matsuda turns out to be a war profiteer, but that never sullies his friendship with Jackson, though the Japanese acts as a link between the real world outside and Jackson's protected existence indoors, in his own world of darkness. Jackson’s dream is of owning and running his own perfect Shanghai bar. He wins big at the races and starts the bar, and aftrerwards he claims Matsuda was the inspiration. Ishiguro’s story is full of attitudes and ideas that we must take on faith. And we do, because the world-weary, doomed mood of the dapper Fiennes, whose sadness finds room for a desperate gaity. It's something akin what we feel in Graham Greene's character Thomas Fowler, played by Michael Caine in The Quiet American, another film for which Doyle was the director of photography. This mood is so deeply appealing, so distinguished, special, and supremely cinematic we’re willing to abandon logic just to enjoy it.

The White Countess isn’t logical; it’s melodramatic and silly. But it’s too beautiful and classy to dismiss. Its slow progression toward a bittersweet “happy ending” is soothing in a way movies rarely are any more.

Merchant-Ivory could be politely dull, but they also were the last great purveyors of the truth now gradually being lost that a movie doesn’t have to come up with something newin the way of style or valid in the way of message to be a sublime way to spend a lazy afternoon.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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