Ralph Fiennes Doesn’t Even Phone in His Role in This Stilted 1930s Period Drama
When a mediocre actor gives a bad performance, no one cares. When an actor of proven talent goes wrong, the results can be mind-boggling. And in The White Countess, Ralph Fiennes turns in one of the worst performances by a gifted actor ever recorded by a movie camera.
It’s not as if Fiennes has suddenly forgotten how to act—after all, he’s one of the best things in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But he has made a series of unusual decisions about how to play Todd Jackson, a blind, widowed American ex-diplomat in 1936 Shanghai, and every one of those decisions is wrong.
For example, Fiennes portrays blindness as a sort of fogginess, as if he’d just been whacked on the head with a two-by-four and hadn’t quite recovered his senses. There’s little hint of the extra-sensitive hearing that most blind people develop, just an unfocused defensiveness. Of course, the plot sometimes demands that he pay attention to the people around him, and at those moments his blindness appears to go into a mysterious, temporary remission.
Fiennes’ control of his American accent is similarly erratic. As the actor negotiates the flattened vowels and softened consonants with careful deliberation, he sounds more like a foreign-language student than a native American. At times Todd verges on a parody of a Midwesterner, the mealy-mouthed, naive schoolboy of many an Englishman’s prejudice.
How could someone this oblivious, this inarticulate, and this inexperienced be a successful diplomat and then the owner of Shanghai’s hottest nightclub? Nothing in Fiennes’ performance answers that question, and as a result the entire movie feels preposterous.
The movie takes its title from that nightclub, which has been named after a White Russian countess named Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson). Having fled the Bolshevik revolution, Sofia’s family has fallen on hard times. Squeezed into a tiny Shanghai apartment, Sofia’s aunt, uncle, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and daughter all depend on Sofia’s job as a taxi dancer, and especially on the money she brings in when she becomes the mistress of a rich dance partner. Even in these circumstances the relatives maintain their aristocratic snobbery, including their prudish disdain for fallen women.
In Kazuo Ishiguro’s original screenplay, Sofia is a thankless role. She never fights back against her family’s hypocrisy or her dance partners’ predations; she bears it all for the good of her 10-year-old daughter Katya (Madeleine Potter). Richardson, still astonishingly beautiful at 42, glows within the confines of her stoic martyrdom but never transcends it.
It would appear that Sofia’s life is about to change dramatically when Todd wanders into her dance hall one evening. Like the stereotypical “john with a golden heart,” he “just wants to talk.” He is so impressed by her aristocratic manner that he soon hires her as the namesake hostess of the nightclub he is about to open. He insists that their relationship be entirely platonic and professional, even though it’s clear that he and Sofia are falling in love with one another.
Nothing has really changed. The uncomplaining Sofia is still working as a sex object for hire and she is still getting grief from her family; Todd remains as out of touch with his feelings as he is with his accent and disability. Mr. Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada), a mysterious Japanese businessman, is introduced, but the mystery surrounding him is so opaque that he can’t get the plot moving either.
Thus The White Countess remains stalled for 110 minutes. It’s only in the last 25 minutes that things start happening. The Japanese invade Shanghai; Sofia’s family flees for Hong Kong, and the countess becomes separated from both Todd and Katya in the chaos—but it’s too little too late.
Because the movie was directed by James Ivory, the fashions, furnishings, and rituals of the international district in 1930s Shanghai are evoked with exquisite taste. For Ivory’s fans, it’s apparently enough to be transported to another time and place where repressed aristocrats suffer elegantly. For them it doesn’t matter that his movies are about as dynamic as a televised bridge tournament.
The White Countess is notable for a few reasons. It’s the final collaboration between Ivory and his longtime producer, Ismail Merchant, who died during postproduction. And it’s the first time that the sisters Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave (who play Sofia’s nasty mother-in-law and befuddled aunt, respectively) have appeared in the same movie together. But mostly it’s notable for Ralph Fiennes’ misbegotten performance.