Over the course of 35 years, director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant enjoyed a personal and professional partnership that birthed a steady stream of tasteful literary adaptations and rich, restrained arthouse fare, including the critical and popular favorites A Room With A View, Howard's End, and The Remains Of The Day. Merchant's May 2005 death ended a cinematic era, and the cap on that era—their last joint project, The White Countess—neatly sums up the bulk of their work: beautifully rich, expertly realized, and generally somnambulant.
Novelist/screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains Of The Day, An Artist Of The Floating World) often obsesses over emotional distances and the conflict between desire and duty, but with The White Countess, he has more to say about the conflict between desire and decorum. Ralph Fiennes embodies that conflict as a blind former diplomat living in 1936 Shanghai, where cultures and nationalities blend in a chaotic stew. Mostly containing his grief, anger, and resentment over the things he's lost—his sight, his family, the profound professional respect he once commanded, his sense of control over the world around him—Fiennes drinks like a fish and ticks like a time bomb. But he temporarily defuses himself through a quiet friendship with simpatico Japanese diplomat Hiroyuki Sanada. And he cautiously pursues a more personal, though equally aloof, relationship with Natasha Richardson, a displaced Russian countess now working as a taxi dancer and prostitute to support her perky daughter and judgmental relatives, including Richardson's real-life mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and aunt (Lynn Redgrave).
As with so many Merchant-Ivory films, The White Countess glides along on restrained, skillful performances and tapestry-rich cinematography, but its beating heart lies deep below the surface, where only determined viewers will find it. Ivory's Shanghai is crowded with dandies, porters, merchants, and hustling anonymous throngs, but a hush sits over it even at raucous parties. That makes its rare flashes of unrepressed emotion all the more compelling, but also lets the film drift along with little sense of momentum or intent. Ultimately, the scattered characters come together and events finally reach a crisis, but much of the rest of the film feels like Fiennes and Richardson's mid-film stroll through a water garden: aimless and slow, with a great deal of buried meaning that everyone is struggling to stifle. Over their time together, Ivory and Merchant won a dedicated following due to their incomparable craft, and their fans know what to expect by now. The White Countess delivers it, with their usual opulent elegance, but anyone who hasn't been won over by their work by the time of this swan song likely won't find cause to change their minds.