Born in Bombay, he was one of those movie cosmopolites equally at home in Hollywood and Bollywood, in the yachts of Cannes or the drawing rooms of Henry James. Together with American-born director James Ivory, his longtime companion, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, he created a luxuriant fictional realm that spanned both centuries (imaginatively) and decades (in real career time) and ranged from his beloved India to Italy, Britain, France and the United States.
Though the three began their collaboration in 1963 with an adaptation of Jhabvala's novel The Householder, their work didn't achieve brand-name status until the breakout success of 1987 Best Picture nominee A Room with a View, a ravishing Tuscan romance whose well-appointed successors included Maurice (1987), Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990), Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993).
Notwithstanding a long fascination with Merchant the irrepressible, Falstaffian impresario, my regard for the Merchant Ivory canon has always been an ambivalent mix of appreciation and demurral. Against the increasingly noisy and infantile movies of the '80s and '90s, their films did offer confident cinematic endorsements of literary tradition and its emphasis on subtlety and human variability; at its best, their work was as polished and inviting as the lushest period dramas of Hollywood's golden age.
Yet the modernists who sneered at their inevitable tweeds and posh accents had a point too. An uncritical embrace of the Merchant Ivory mindset assumed that "art" equated with expensive furniture and social or literary pedigrees, and it missed the unfortunate fact that too often their dramas fell short of the very models they invoked, substituting opulent atmospherics for truly challenging insights or the shattering revelations of tragedy.
Happily, The White Countess, the last in Merchant Ivory's long line of films, proves so representative of their work's better qualities that it stands as a fitting memorial to Ismail Merchant's lifelong passion. Besides its East Asian setting, the movie marks a departure only in that it was written not by Jhabvala but by Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, author of the source novel of The Remains of the Day, which critic David Thomson has called the most characteristic of Merchant Ivory's films.
Though the film is set in Shanghai just prior to World War II, Ishiguro's central dramatic conceit is one that might appeal to many viewers in different places and eras, including the present: It concerns a man who wants to create the perfect nightclub--the nightclub, as he puts it, "of my dreams." The strange qualifiers to this heady quest are that the man in question is blind, and the world where he constructs his ideal emporium is about to fall apart.
Ivory doesn't announcethis conceit right away, however. The White Countess begins by introducing us to a family of displaced Russian aristocrats who are not only mired in poverty but troubled by internal dissension. Delightfully, the shabby-genteel clan is portrayed by actors including Vanessa Redgrave (as an aged princess who frequently lapses into French), her sister Lynn Redgrave and daughter Natasha Richardson. Though shamed by their reduced circumstances, the family is even more embarrassed that one of their number has chosen to earn money for all of them in a rather dubious fashion: Countess Sofia (Richardson) dresses up every night and sells dances to sailors and other lonely men in a cheap nightspot.
It's not prostitution exactly, but the way that most of Sofia's family sees things, it might as well be. They retaliate by trying to drive a wedge between the reluctant income-producer and her young daughter.
It's in Sofia's place of business that we meet Mr. Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), a soft-spoken American who seems connected to the worlds of diplomacy and trade. The fact that Jackson is blind bespeaks a traumatic and tragic past, just as it perhaps explains his avidity for Shanghai's nightlife; it's as if by going out every night, the damaged expatriate can avoid the ghosts that haunt his memory.
One evening Jackson strikes up a conversation with an urbane and slightly mysterious Japanese gentleman named Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada). Out of this initial encounter a friendship is born, and it's to his new friend that Jackson reveals his fanciful but obviously fervent dream of creating his ideal nightclub. Though it seems far-fetched in present circumstances, the American has mentally designed the place right down its smallest details. He knows the bouncers he wants, the bartenders, the music.
Most crucially, he determines that the place will be defined by a certain woman, and for that role an overheard conversation has led him to choose Sofia. As Jackson later explains, "She knows that history has no place for her kind anymore. She's perfect. She's my centerpiece."
As it happens, a stroke of luck gives Jackson the chance to realize his dream, and when he offers Sofia the job of resident muse and symbolic centerpiece, she accepts with a mixture of bemusement, gratitude and puzzlement, not really understanding the odd American and his obsession. The nightclub, though, turns out to be a beauty, classy and vibrant. Jackson names it The White Countess. (Given the alcoholic ambience, you feel Ishiguro winking at us that he didn't choose to christen it The White Russian.)
Once the club is open and evidently a howling success, however, Jackson decides a certain atmospheric frisson is missing: political tension. His enigmatic friend Matsuda lends a hand by arranging for representatives of various factions, including Chinese communists and nationalists (Kuomintang), to begin rubbing shoulders in the nightspot. Though this might seem a recipe for social conflagration, the worst doesn't happen. Indeed, it's as if the danger Jackson seemingly courts in his posh drinking establishment actually explodes outside its doors, as the fragile peace of southern China collapses and the film's characters are swept toward their individual fates by history's flood tide.
I must confess that I found The White Countess' last section its weakest, a retreat into melodrama and convention that unfortunately recalls the Merchant Ivory tendency to placate rather than provoke. Finally, the film opts for skirting rather than confronting the darker implications of Jackson's manipulative misanthropy, Sofia's quasi-suicidal penchant for self-sacrifice, and indeed the tragic moment of history they inhabit.
Nonetheless, what comes earlier more than justifies the whole. The White Countess ends up among the most elegantly and attractively mounted of Ivory's films. Beyond the visual fluency of his direction and the sumptuous period detail of Andrew Sanders' production design, Ivory makes excellent use of cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the Australian whose wizardly work for Edward Yang, Wong Kar Wai, Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and others has made him the pre-eminent lensman of Asia's auteur cinema.
Ivory also deserves credit for the film's range of sharp performances. While Fiennes' characteristic recessiveness and subtlety both adds to Jackson's mystery while arguably making the character a bit more soft-edged than he need be, Richardson's sad-eyed aristocrat is a marvel of nuance and precision--and a convincing movie Russian to this observer.
The movie's other great asset is the first three quarters of Ishiguro's original screenplay, which, besides its verbal eloquence, offers us that unbeatable central conceit. Granted, as a metaphor for a society's discontents and desires, Jackson's ideal nightclub is as potent and engaging as it is a bit too obvious (not to mention indebted to similar boîtes in films including The Blue Angel, Casablanca and Cabaret).
On a more discrete level, however, the nightclub gives us a great metaphor for every Merchant Ivory film, including this one. For what is making a movie but constructing an ideal, enclosed world that one hopes will be more glamorous, more entertaining, more beautiful than the one outside with its wars and tragedies? Ismail Merchant spent his life building such pleasure palaces, and The White Countess testifies again to the expertise and infectious ebullience he brought to the task.