The final collaboration between Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, The White Countess, isn't their absolute best effort, but as swan songs go, it's still a sight more auspicious than the last-ever Simpson-Bruckheimer picture. It's a light dusting of Casablanca's interventionism with the anonymous passion of Last Tango in Paris, albeit with taxi dancing taking the place of genuine sex because, well, this is Merchant-Ivory we're talking about.
As Todd Jackson, a blind American ex-diplomat, Ralph Fiennes goes stumbling around 1936 Shanghai, walking into potted plants and fending off memories of the wife and children he's lost under tragic circumstances. He's a disillusioned but genial dork, a potential medley of mannerisms that Fiennes makes into something close to real person (even when he's punctuating his lines with an aw-shucks horselaugh that's dangerously close to Ronald Reagan's).
A big score at the racetrack enables Jackson to fulfill his one remaining dream: opening his own nightclub. As a dancer/hostess, he hires Sofia (Natasha Richardson), a Russian exile with royalty in the rearview and a family to support by any means necessary. Jackson, bruised by his past experiences, decrees that he and his new hire not discuss anything of their personal lives. Still, she's obviously putting the spring back in his cane, and for purely nonprofessional reasons.
The warmth between the two of them helps dull the movie's key ideological dilemma: In the person of Sofia at least, it expects us to find pathos in imperialism gone south. Even when the looming Japanese invasion threatens her new environment and Jackson's political remove, we're prodded into nostalgia for the good old days before the revolution a feeling I've only heretofore experienced during a few fleeting moments of Russian Ark. And that picture didn't even have any big-name tsars.
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