Restraint and good taste kill any extant excitement in "The White Countess."
Shanghai, 1936. The tumultuous city is awash in foreigners: deposed Russian nobility, Jews fleeing fascism, opportunistic American businessmen and scheming Japanese power brokers (or are they spies?). Nationalist and Communist Chinese forces are only a shoving match away from open warfare.
Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) surveys this powder keg and thinks, "What a great place to open a posh bar!"
Jackson is blind, so he's not getting the full picture. Neither does "The White Countess," the film he's starring in, which takes a tentative approach to its subject. The final collaboration between director James Ivory and his late producing partner Ismail Merchant ("Howards End,"Remains of the Day") measures out its drama in tepid teacups.
Jackson, an ex-diplomat who lost his sight in a terrorist bombing, has lost faith in traditional attempts at international relations. But he believes that a determined man can create an oasis of style and culture in an uncertain world. He imagines peopling his high-class gin joint with customers of all stripes. "With a good team of bouncers, you could conduct the place like an orchestra," he says.
Of course, there must be beautiful women in the mix, so his crown jewel will be Countess Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson), a refined but penniless White Russian émigré working as a dance-hall hostess to keep her idle, ungrateful relatives afloat.
Drawn by her combination of "the erotic and the tragic," Jackson's feelings for his aristocratic employee grow beyond the platonic. She reciprocates, but they hold their emotions in check as tightly as Jackson's prissily knotted bow ties. In similar circumstances in "Casablanca," Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman sparked simmering passion. Fiennes and Richardson merely generate haute ennui. Rather than adventure, a sense of loneliness and homesickness pervades the film.
The blame falls at the feet of Ivory and screenwriter (and "Remains of the Day" author) Kazuo Ishiguro, who fatally overestimate the appeal of restraint and understatement. Refinement is an admirable quality, but "The White Countess" is so bloodless it all but cries for a transfusion.
The White Countess
* out of four stars
The setup: In 1930s Shanghai, a blind American entrepreneur (Ralph Fiennes) and a refugee Russian noblewoman (Natasha Richardson) drift toward an almost-romance.
What works: Richardson's grasping relatives are played by her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, and aunt, Lynn Redgrave.
What doesn't: This is decorous but dull filmmaking.
Great line: Although the screenplay was written by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro ("Remains of the Day") there is not an epigram to be found.
Rating: PG-13 for some violent images and thematic elements.