Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The White Countess -- hiding and not seeing

Director: James Ivory, 2005. (PG-13) 

The White Countess is a Merchant-Ivory production. The team of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant have produced a number of memorable charming period piece films, most notably Howards End and Remains of the Day. Sadly, this was their last partnership before Merchant died later in the same year. Sadly, too, this falls far short of their earlier movies. Despite a strong cast, The White Countess disappoints mostly due to a poor, choppy script and a painfully slow plot.

The film takes place in Shanghai in the 1930s between the two world wars. In the aftermath of the great war, many people emigrated to Shanghai and it was a melting pot of cultures. When the Russian Revolution left its aristocracy stateless, Countess Sofia Belinskya (Natasha Richardson) and her family have moved here. This geographic move south parallels the societal move south, as they are now living in poverty, sharing the beds in shifts.

To survive, Sofia takes a job as a bar-girl, dressing up to act as a companion to the men who come to these places to drink and dance. Although she is the only breadwinner, her relatives are ashamed of her and treat her like a pariah, even telling her to avoid her young daughter when she is in make-up. When she meets Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) a friendship is formed.

Jackson, a blind American diplomat, spends his time frequenting various bars, seeking the perfect one. He dreams of opening that perfect bar, and when he meets Japanese diplomat Mr. Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada) he shares this dream. When he eventually takes a risk, he gains the money to open his own bar and realize his dream. Taking Sofia with him as hostess, he names the place after her: the White Countess.

As his dream is realized, he finds he is unsatisfied. With Matsuda’s help he accomplishes the refined version of this dream. But he continues to hide inside his bar, avoiding the world outside and even avoiding any relationships of depth. His real dream is to be with Sofia, but he hides even from that.

Fiennes and Richardson are great actors, but here the chemistry is wrong. And so too are the accents. Richardson, in one of the last films of her career before her tragic death in a skiing accident, can’t pull of a good Russian accent, while Fiennes sounds like a Brit trying to be an American. He is unconvincing. Alongside Richardson, her mother Vanessa Redgrave and her aunt Lynn Redgrave also appear as Sofia’s family members. They offer solid acting but don’t really move the plot along.

Jackson’s blindness offers a key to interpreting the film. Physically, he is blind and that is involuntary. The film slowly explains how he lost his sight, but it was not his choice. Yet, he is blind metaphorically, avoiding “seeing” what was going on in the world. He refused to look at Mr. Matsuda, who was more than just a diplomat. He refused to see the imminent invasion of the Japanese into China. He was happy to remain in his little bar, his happy place, hiding alone.

One of the emerging themes here is hiding from the world. To experience life you have to take a risk. Jackson did it once but hesitated later. When we hide, however we choose to do so, we are avoiding the plans and opportunities that lie in wait. God calls us to an abundant life (Jn. 10:10), one that relishes adventure. We cannot simply waste that life in hiding.

On the other hand, the Bible does have something to say about hiding. On the positive side, the Psalmist talks of believers hiding in God: “In the shelter of your presence you hide them from all human intrigues; you keep them safe in your dwelling from accusing tongues.” (Psa. 31:19). Another Psalm is more active, “Rescue me from my enemies, LORD, for I hide myself in you” (Psa. 143:9). Yet, the apostle John spoke of unbelievers who will cry out to the mountains and the rocks in the end times, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev. 6:16). Clearly, the right form of hiding involves taking refuge in God, and that does not deny taking a risk in life.

Like the blind man plodding carefully forward to avoid unseen obstacles, this film is ponderous, plodding on and hitting the obstacles of plot and dialog. Although the mood and atmosphere captures the era, even the beauty of the cinematography cannot save this one. Do yourself a favor, and hide inside if this one comes along.

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

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