Cinema Signal:

The Remains of the Day
by Kazuo Ishiguro

. "The White Countess"

At a slow and lackadaisacal pace, the story of a blind, former American diplomat opening a glamorous nightclub for the upscale class in Shanghai comes together as a kind of love story. That lethargy of movement is part of the intrigue and atmosphere director James Ivory wants and gets in his elaborately patient direction of a period piece with an all Redgrave cast.

The setting is Shanghai in 1936, when the Japanese are denying the militaristic intentions they're being accused of in the press. The story brings together exiled Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave's daughter), a widow supporting her family after the death of her husband. Despite the fact that her work as a dancehall girl and possible prostitute (implied only) is all they have keeping them from the poorhouse, her aunt Sara (Vanessa Redgrave), mother-in-law Olga (Lynn Redgrave) and devious sister-in-law Greshenka (Madeleine Potter) demean her by their attitudes of vainglorious superiority.

Much of the household tension revolves around Sofia's loving (and lovely) young daughter Katya (a most interesting Madeleine Daly), whom the family sees as better than the mother because of her paternity. This coven of royal witches is likely to take the girl from her mother at any opportunity. They certainly assert their control, even as they're pocketing Sofia's earnings.

Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), another expatriot in Shanghai, came to it as an American diplomat and quit the corps after a bomb took his daughter and his eyesight. He's now a businessman who is so jaded by politics and bad fortune that he needs to work up interest in his own sources of income. He fairly well drips with drollery as he musters the civility to carry on, frequenting bars that range from classy to notorious.

It is is one such bar that he meets Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada), a mystery man who takes a keen interest in the blind playboy with the dream of opening a nightclub of his own. Their subsequent tour of nightspots, ending in a well-known dancehall, secures their bond of personal friendship, with Todd knowing nothing of Matsuda's role in the maelstrom gathering in the winds of geopolitics.

And then, one night, Todd returns to the dancehall where Sofia, discerning that two known hoods are about to relieve Todd of his wallet, or worse, rescues him from certain danger. His learning of her aristocratic background adds another tie to his list of new friends, culminating in the idea that she is the embodiment of the business venture he's been dreaming about.

After he gambles his net worth on a horserace and winning, he makes her an offer she can hardly refuse, takes her away from her illicit means of employment, and opens an elegant nightclub with her as the theme. He calls it, "The White Princess" and it's an instant hit.

Director Ivory, working with a script by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro ("Remains of the Day") goes to pains to delay any hint of a romantic attraction in the relationship while spinning out the tale of Noel Cowardesque stylishness, implied sensuality, and feverish atmospherics. Until the third act, that is, when the Japanese threat boils over into a matter of survival and Shanghai goes into a state of panic, ending the story fatigue with a new tone (and finally justifying the posters).

The 135 minute labor, the last collaboration between the estimable filmmaking team of James Ivory and the late Ismael Merchant, wears on with a strain of frustration beyond its subject and beyond justification. The nightclub singers, however, pay their way with sumptuous style and period grace, with the same being said for the cinematic artistry of Christopher Doyle and the rich score by Richard Robbins.

For me, however, the most annoying factor of all is Fiennes' verbal affectation, a singsong delivery that suggests an emulation of Franklyn Delano Roosevelt in a sound byte for Pathe' News. There is no "let-down-your-hair" naturalness about this guy, though his depiction of a blind man is meticulous. The rest of the cast is fine, with Richarson doing well with difficult character complexity and little Madeleine Daly invigorating the screen with her presence.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Natasha Richardson and Ralph Fiennes
Nightclub centerpiece and entrepreneur
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