One reviewer accurately described The White Countess as having “echoes of Casablanca.” More than that, this last production from Merchant-Ivory seems like it lifted its premise entirely from the classic Bogart film. But at the same time, there is enough different about this colorful and mesmerizing piece to distinguish it as something original – or original enough. With murmurings about that Hollywood may one day remake Casablanca (as it seems they have everything else), I hope and pray the gods …f better judgment will win out, and let Countess stand as the sole benefactor of such a superior motion picture. At its core, this Ralph Fiennes vehicle is about two people, fallen from glory, who realize the only chance they have in a world quickly going to Hell is the love and respect they share for each other. The film keeps such potentially boring material – and for those that scoff at such an idea, let it be known Merchant-Ivory didn’t always knock their films out of the park – fresh and interesting through deep characterization and beautiful imagery. The world the production designers and director of photography Christopher Doyle create is enchanting beyond belief. Once you start watching, it’s nearly impossible to remove your eyes from it. In short, these folks make Director James Ivory’s job too easy; but it’s the audience that reaps the benefits.
Of course, whether the production crew does their job or not, Fiennes always gives a performance worthy of an Oscar – and is subsequently always shunned for his contributions. I would be amiss if I didn’t point out just how much his presence adds to the enjoyability – and the credibility – of the film as a whole. He is one of few actors today with that old-time Hollywood quality represented in actors such as Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant. Let me just say I realize those two men have a world of difference between them, but their best qualities speak much on the kind of incredible actor Fiennes is. Whether he’s playing tyrannical Nazi (Schindler’s List), vengeful husband (The Constant Gardener), hopeless junkie (Strange Days), or meek blind hero with a sacrificial heart (The White Countess), he always turns in performances worthy of Oscar gold. As you can guess, his rendering of Countess‘s Todd Jackson is nothing short of amazing. He idolizes, looks out for, and loves the Countess Sofia (Natasha Richardson, with her usual solid performance), and seeks to pick her up from her fallen status in 1930’s Shanghai. Pursuing his dreams, he starts a nightclub (shades of Casablanca), where Sofia takes center stage as the object of the club’s affections – as well as his own. As the final act begins with the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, we see more shades of Bogart’s film in the sacrifices Jackson makes to insure the well-being of the woman he has grown to love. He is content to die, so long as he knows he’s done all he could for Sofia and her child (who reminds him of his own daughter, now deceased from the same bombing which claimed his eyesight). But The White Countess is a more optimistic picture than its subject matter will lead many to believe, and it manages to leave viewers with a few surprises and a bit more warmth than they may have expected going in. This film should have been Oscar material, at least for the acting and production value; it is, in my opinion, the fourth best film of 2005.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic presentation is flawless with gorgeous color saturation and deep contrast. Ivory admits the film’s version of Shanghai isn’t realistic – rather, Impressionistic out of necessity as very little of World War II Shanghai still exists. Still, Impressionist or not, the sets are believable in doing a great job of recreating what it may have been like and convincing viewers of the authenticity. War always carries with it a little violence, and the film’s translation works in short, effective bursts – realistic, yet possessing a startling beauty not expected with war-time grit.
There is much to like about this 5.1 track. Firstly, there is the technical end. Bass is solid and deep, but walks safe of the line to overdoing things. Dialogue levels also possess high volume. The subtleties of the nightclub during its booming days, in addition to the mystical scene of Sofia remembering better times when she danced as the aristocrats do, succeed in whisking off viewers to warm, nostalgic places. Composer Richard Robbins’ musical contributions also claim some of the responsibility for the track’s successes, emotionally.
Fiennes is absent for the audio commentary, but James Ivory and the elegant Natasha Richardson provide enough interesting thoughts and details to make it worth a listen. Surprisingly, all three of the included featurettes are worthwhile. The Behind the Scenes Featurette and The Making of The White Countess, while seeming as if they could have been combined into one, offer depth of their own through interviews with Ivory, Fiennes, Richardson, stars Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave, Doyle, and a host of others from cast and crew, that contributed in making this film something special. Last but not least, A Tribute to Ismail Merchant is a fitting, inspired end to the the life and career of the maverick producer. Something undeniable, whether you love Merchant-Ivory films or hate them – this guy had passion for what he did, and he didn’t believe in doing anything unless it was the best he could possibly make it. Great archival footage, even if the piece is a little short.
Until this arrived in my mailbox, I had no idea of its existence. I guess if one thinks the films in theaters are crap, he is unlikely to try something he knows virtually little about. Such thinking is a fallacy, and this film is proof. Mixing elements of Casablanca with an inspired cast and crew, The White Countess will surprise you. And the DVD possesses some of the best audio and video I’ve experienced this year. Even the extras deliver. Whether Merchant-Ivory is your thing or not, give this film a shot – I think you’ll agree it’s a pretty amazing way to end a partnership.
Special Features List
- Commentary with James Ivory and Natasha Richardson
- Behind-the-Scenes Featurette
- A Tribute to Ismail Merchant
- Making of “The White Countess”
- Previews for other Sony titles