The White Countess is the final collaborative film project of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, two of the most remarkable visual story tellers of our era. This brilliantly told story is situated in Shanghai just prior to the Japanese invasion of World War II. Shanghai was a glamorous, corrupt boomtown filled with émigrés from many parts of the world. The countess is a Russian aristocratic émigré who had fled Russia following the Revolution. She meets an American who was formerly a diplomat. The American lost his wife and child in an explosion and also lost his own sight. The American diplomat is played by the superb actor Ralph Fiennes, two-time Oscar nominee, who I still think played a great Martin Luther in the most recent movie version of his life. The countess is Natasha Richardson who starred in the movie version of Patty Hearst: Maid in Manhattan.
The film ends with a spectacular mass exodus from Shanghai with the countess, Sophie, being abandoned by her self-righteous in-laws, played by the famous Redgrave sisters, Lynn and Vanessa. The in-laws try to secretly escape with Sophie’s small daughter, thinking they are doing what is in her best interest, but Sophie and Mr. Jackson work to save the girl and end up realizing that they love one another as they escape to Macao.
What drew me to this film, since I knew nothing about it previously, is the film-making skills of Merchant and Ivory. Merchant and Ivory have previously collaborated on films such as A Room with a View (1986), Howard’s End (1993), and The Remains of the Day (1994). Merchant, who is from Bombay, is a legendary producer. Ivory is a three-time Oscar nominee for best picture and best director. Together the work of these two men has given us some of the finest stories on film. They are meticulous for detail and gracefully give the viewer a sumptuous artist feast. I loved it and recommend it to you. The DVD version has a wonderful tribute to Ismail Merchant and a section on the making and production of this film, both of which are extremely valuable to lovers of truly good film. This film should be pure delight for anyone who appreciates the art form at all.