The reward of a good Merchant Ivory film -- and there have been many -- comes as much from the telling as from the tale being told. Now, for the last time, there's The White Countess, directed by James Ivory, and produced by Ismail Merchant, whose death last year ended a collaboration that spanned almost half a century.
It's fitting that their finale takes place on a scale much grander than most of their other work put together. Can you remember when a Merchant Ivory film had explosions, crowd scenes, special effects and animation (a little girl looks at color plates in a camera obscura, and they come to life in her imagination)? The setting is China, from 1936 to Bloody Saturday in 1937, but the purpose is the same: to explore and then expose the ruling classes at a moment of disintegration.
The central figure of this drama would seem to be its titular one. In Moscow, Sofia (Natasha Richardson) was rich and royal, a happy czarist schooled in piano and French. But few countries welcomed White Russian refugees, so now she subsists as a dance-hall madam in Shanghai, earning money to support her young daughter, her mother-in-law, Olga (Lynn Redgrave), her Aunt Sara (Vanessa Redgrave), and a few others who escaped with them.
By chance, while at work, she meets Mr. Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), an American businessman, blinded a few years earlier in an accident, who falls asleep at meetings where the topic is the price of tea in China. He was once a young diplomat at the signing of the Great Treaty in Versailles, and he shared Wilson's dream of a League of Nations. Now he's in Shanghai, bored with his life. So with his winnings from a horse race, he opens an elegant nightclub -- with alcohol, dancing, live music and gaiety -- where he can live in his mind's eye, the only one he has left, and shut out the political chaos going on around him.
For an hour, The White Countess allows us to grow warm toward the charmingly insipid Jackson, whose bland accent and poised repartee gradually dissect the Ugly American. By the time the Japanese invade, it's too late for him to do any good for history. Sofia, if no less pathetic, is slightly more attractive, but only because she works for a living. Her materfamilias are Jackson's Russian counterparts: Aunt Sara especially, desperate to regain her privilege, is determined to pay a call on an old friend at the French consulate, against the advice of her kin; meanwhile, Olga knits, like Madame Defarge.
The White Countess was written by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Japanese novelist whose book The Remains of the Day was well adapted a decade ago by Merchant Ivory. So naturally, the dialogue is refined to precision and rife with metaphors that function seamlessly in the fabric of Ivory's skillful storytelling.
"Outright violence can destroy a place," says Jackson, "but a vague threat of violence keeps order." He's speaking of the bouncers at his nightclub, but his observation reverberates through an anxious China. Jackson creates his united world by handily ignoring the rumbling war and revolution. And why wouldn't he? He's an owner, a dilettante at social upheaval, who wants to sprinkle his clubs with a few quaint Maoists and Japanese and Kuomintang to spice things up. Countess Sofia might represent the vilified elite of the past, but Jackson is the endangered colonial master of the present.
This is all skillfully acted by Fiennes, who builds to a stunning crescendo that's even more potent when played against Richardson's placid-cum-plastic accompaniment (the presence of her real-life mother and aunt, the Redgrave sisters, is more trick casting than dynastic musing). I can hardly imagine a better end to the Merchant Ivory canon, or a better movie about a story that they've told, in one way or another, so many times before.