For those who embrace films of impeccable good taste and epic sweep, Merchant Ivory Productions is virtually synonymous with finely tailored British chamber dramas adapted from literary masterworks such as Howards End. As one of the last films produced by Ismail Merchant, who died in May, James Ivory's new, languorous war movie may surprise those who expect more intimate, etiquette-bound antics from these aristocrats of independent cinema. Set in Shanghai, 1936, on the eve of the Sino-Japanese War, the film tracks the relationship between Jackson (Fiennes), a blind, disillusioned American diplomat who builds his dream bar to shut out the world, and Sofia (Richardson), an exiled Russian countess now working as a taxi dancer.
With an A-list cast and crew, including celebrated lensman Christopher Doyle, and an original screenplay by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, The White Countess is anchored in world history, wrestling with big themes like war, displacement, political isolationism and metaphorical blindness. The inevitable love story that develops between Sofia and Jackson hinges on the intercession of Sofia's engaging young daughter Katya, beautifully played by Madeleine Daly. Fiennes may not stretch much in his role, but he brings a tragic emotional restraint to Jackson. Maundering at times, The White Countess benefits from Doyle's energetic visual style and eventually finds its legs when the Japanese invade, as a speech by Jackson's shady acquaintance Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada) about wanting "a broader canvas" to paint on takes on an explosive, historic dimension.—Damon Smith
(Opens Wed 21; see Now playing for venues.)