MOVIE REVIEW 'Countess' shows a powerful Fiennes

The film bears a deliberate resemblance to 'Casablanca.'
As a blind American expatriate on permanent vacation from his former life as a diplomat, Ralph Fiennes etches an indelible performance in "The White Countess," a historical romance set in 1937 Shanghai. It is the last of the 28 films made by the prolific filmmaking team of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, who died in May.
Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro wrote the original screenplay for this atmospheric story about the dissolute, disillusioned man whose only remaining goal is to create his ideal refuge: a bar with the delicate balance between the "erotic and the tragic."
Any resemblance between this film and "Casablanca" is purely deliberate.
Like Rick Blaine in that film, Todd Jackson (Fiennes) imagines that he is far from the winds of war when in fact they are about to blow through.
In 1937, Shanghai was Asia's most cosmopolitan city, a way station for refugees from Hitler and Stalin and a hot spot in the civil war between Chinese Communists and Nationalists.
It was also a city under surveillance by the Japanese planning to invade.
Embittered both by family tragedy and by the failure of the League of Nations to create world peace, Jackson cuts a lonely figure in Shanghai nightclubs.
Likewise Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson), a taxi dancer whose labors support her extended family of Russian nobility driven out by the Revolution. Once a countess in her homeland, Sofia gracefully protects Jackson one night, fending off pickpockets who have marked the blind man.
Captivated by Sofia's poise and deep-throated voice, Jackson decides she is the ideal hostess for his idealized bar, a boite boasting hot jazz, cold champagne and warm beauties.
Jackson names the bar for Sofia, The White Countess. The man who failed to create world peace succeeds at creating an oasis where people of conflicting politics and temperaments can drink together -- for a time.
Top performances
Since this is a Merchant-Ivory production it is a given that the performances are first-rate.
Richardson, who co-stars with her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, and Aunt Lynn, is exquisite as the refined woman who maintains her spirit in a coarse world; Fiennes' work is even subtler.
Nothing prepares you for the delicacy of his Jackson, the American who is literally and metaphorically blind.
Jackson uses his ears as his eyes, selecting a tie for the music of its silk. Where in "The Constant Gardener" Fiennes made his face opaque so we couldn't tell what he was feeling, as Jackson he is transparently sensitive, his face registering hurt, hope and elation.
He makes the role surprisingly physical, flaunting a blind man's grace.
So powerful is Fiennes that his performance carries the last act of an overlong film that is not as shapely as we've come to expect from Merchant and Ivory.
Still, anyone who admires the filmmakers devoted to making movies about culturally and socially displaced people who blaze their own paths will get misty at the final strains of the film. When a trumpeter plays "After You've Gone," it's both a salute to characters bound for a new world and an elegy for the departed Merchant.

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