Set in 1930s Shanghai, where a blind American diplomat develops a curious relationship with a young Russian refugee who works odd -- and sometimes illicit -- jobs to support members of her dead husband's aristocratic family.
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Shanghai. 1936. Crossroads of the world and into this city of political intrigue comes Sofia, a Russian Countess who, with the remains of her family, has been left stateless by the Revolution. Forced by her reduced circumstances to support herself and her family as a bar-girl and taxi dancer, Sofia forms a relationship with Jackson, a blind former diplomat who opens an elegant bar; The White Countess. Their curious relationship matures but they are caught up in the fall of the city to the Japanese invaders. Written by
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Why aren't you at home in your bed?
There is no bed for me till morning. My daughter... Sorry, I was forgetting our agreement.
I told you, there is no agreement. I just once thought that we'd get on best if we confined our friendship to within these walls.
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Sorry to say that despite the incredible pedigree of everyone concerned, this film was disappointing. It is beautifully shot and designed, with all the elegance and taste that one comes to expect from Merchant-Ivory, and of course the literary sensibility seems even more marked due to the scripting by Kazuo Ishiguro.
But the film is lifeless. It has plenty of aesthetic style but it has no momentum or vigor. The very accomplished performances by a truly wonderful cast are somewhat wasted when the pace is so glacial and the overall sense of film-making seems so stodgy and fatigued.
I am reminded of how frustrating I found, years ago, Merchant-Ivory's adaptation of Ishiguro's REMAINS OF THE DAY to be, despite again a stellar cast. I know there are people who would disagree strongly with me, but all the fascinating tragic interior sense of the butler's thoughts that made the book so absorbing and moving could not be communicated in a motion picture, no matter how talented an actor Anthony Hopkins is, so we wound up spending a couple of hours looking at a great actor nearly expressionless as he worked so hard to make his proper and repressed character neither register any emotions on his face nor express any in what he said.
Here again we have the same problem. There are huge emotions under the surface here, but because of the foreground sense of repression (and because of the cool-to-the-point-of-leisurely-and-moribund film-making style) we wind up watching Ralph Fiennes do his own version of Hopkins' "sorry, I can't say or feel or show anything because my character is supposed to be so repressed" act.
Granted, these are essential, trademark issues in Ishiguro's work. But it seems that without the vivid interior turmoil so eloquently expressed in his prose to help illuminate the character's stoicism, the result on screen is just....bland. Natasha Richardson fares much, much better, since her character need not be as repressed. And her performance is stunning. And John Wood makes the most out of what is essentially a TWO-LINE role(!!).
Actually, the whole Russian family is handled as a tour-de-force by the acting ensemble, and probably would have been enough to really put this picture over-the-top had not the fatally inexpressive scenes of Jackson and Matsuda ballasted the work into such a torpor. Some of this heaviness is admittedly inherent in Ishiguro's script, but I sense the very same words could have been imbued with the same gravity without nearly the somnambulent wooziness Ivory has made out of them.
I am an unabashed fan of Merchant-Ivory's work, and am saddened by the recent death of Ismail Merchant. The team of Merchant/Ivory/Ruth Prawer Jhabvala/Richard Robbins has created some real cinematic milestones. Two of the Forster adaptations are masterpieces, and many of the Indian films are rare gems. So I'm not one of those who find this dynasty to be too "artsy" or whatever other criticisms have been leveled at them by impatient filmgoers.
Yet "impatience" is indeed what I ultimately felt with this plodding execution. It was a frustrating experience, not the least because I could see how close Ivory was to achieving what he must have wanted to achieve, and how hard everyone must have worked to create that sense of Shanghai on the eve of its tragic invasion by the Japanese. It has all the elements of a great epic, but fails to become one due almost completely to the weirdly anemic sense of passionless, momentumless, drearily uninspired film-making.
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