starring Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave
screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro
directed by James Ivory
by Walter Chaw Even without recently-deceased partner-in-crime Ismail Merchant, stalwart period-costume-drama codger James Ivory delivers the slavishly middlebrow, meandering, Anglo-centric goods with The White Countess, the tale of a sightless American ex-diplomat, Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), who falls for refugee Russian countess Sophia (Natasha Richardson) in Shanghai on the eve of Japanese occupation. Packed to the rafters with Redgraves (Lynn and Vanessa also appear) and meticulously airless accents, the picture represents a certain ossified breed of prestige picture of the A Room with a View and Howards End variety, complete with novelist-turned-screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro (he of The Remains of the Day) contributing another story of reticence and romance with a lead character who's actually blind this time, rather than just metaphorically so. Jackson dreams of insulating himself from the ugliness of the world within the velvet walls of a "perfect nightclub" he constructs with his savings, with Sophia--exuding that delicate balance between the erotic and the tragic--enlisted as the perfect hostess to minister to his guests. But it all feels dusty--the romantic dreams of old men, tired-out and beaten-up by life and enacted by stuffy actors so great at what they do that it's terrifically boring to watch them do it. It's tempting to hold a mirror under the film's nose for long, tasteful stretches, that sense of un-offended apathy not even quenched by my honest-to-goodness crush on the gracefully-aging Richardson. At the end of it all, The White Countess is as deluded and retreating as its hero, looking to duck the uglier aspects of its tale (prostitution and genocide never looked this chic) without even the early Merchant-Ivory inclination to offer at least a bittersweet ending to counteract the requisite 140 minutes of sickly chamber-room ethic.