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At the edge of an abyss: (l-r) Richardson and Fiennes in The White Countess.

Unhappy Farewell
By Ann Morrow

The White Countess

Directed by James Ivory

The White Countess, the fi- nal collaboration between James Ivory and the late Ismail Merchant, is not one of the partners’ memorable achievements, though it does boast all the hallmarks of a literate and socially meditative Merchant-Ivory movie: authentic production values, high-powered cast (two Redgraves), and a melancholy languor indicating that the world is changing, and not for the better. This elegiac tone is eminently suitable for the film’s setting of late-1930s Shanghai during the advent of the Sino-Japanese War. Yet The White Countess—the title character is a refugee from Communist Russia—has to be considered a failure. It’s an elegant failure with noble intentions, but a failure nonetheless; even some waterfront cinematography from the great Christopher Doyle cannot make this enervated drama any easier to sit through.

The problem is the script by Kazuo Ishiguro, which takes far too long to reveal important information about the lead characters, leaving the story to wallow in moody, exaggerated funks until shortly before the melodramatic fillip of an ending. Countess Sofia (Natasha Richardson) is a White Russian who lives with her young daughter in squalid exile along with, among others, her mother-in-law (Lynn Redgrave) and her mother-in-law’s sister, Sara (Vanessa Redgrave). Sophia works as a dance-hall girl and professional mistress to support the family. Her prim sister-in-law (Madeleine Potter) is angrily disapproving of Sophia, intoning that God will punish her even as she sits down to the dinner that Sophia’s prostitution has purchased. Sophia’s air of tragedy (not quite conveyed by Richardson) attracts the notice of another world-weary foreigner, Tod Jackson (Ralph Fiennes).

Jackson is a former diplomat from America who mysteriously lost his vision. (While Fiennes’ accent is credible, the character is not.) Disillusioned with Western influence in China, he retreats from politics into Shanghai’s louche nightlife. He opens his own establishment, in the hopes that it will have glamorous entertainment, the vague promise of sex, a hint of danger, and “political tension.” He hires Sophia as his hostess, and is so taken with her aristocratic gentility that he names the bar after her. Jackson’s Japanese acquaintance, Mr. Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada), helps him with the clientele, adding Japanese businessmen and Communist soldiers to the mix. The cognac-fueled dream world of The White Countess is, of course, too ephemeral to last. In the only illuminating line of dialogue, Sophia compares the club’s heavy doors to the symbolic doors of upper-class Russia, which were not heavy enough to shut out the world.

This laboriously constructed scenario, strategically placed amid the foreign quarters of Shanghai, wastes its potential for excitement, romance or realpolitik with repetitious scenes of people talking at polite loggerheads. In particular, Jackson’s punctilious conversations with the obviously shady Matsuda, and Sophia’s hand-wringing over the future of her child (what, better she should starve than to be raised by a bar hostess?) suffocate the plot beyond resuscitation. By the time the sampans set sail during the Japanese invasion, it’s impossible to care what becomes of any of them.

Hack Work

Firewall

Directed by Richard Loncraine

Staring at a computer screen as it scrolls down thousands of names and numerals isn’t exactly compelling cinema, yet that’s the lynchpin of Firewall, a techie thriller about online banking that’s sometimes literally by-the-numbers. Those numbers indicate bank accounts, accounts that are hacked by Jack Stanfield (Harrison Ford), a security expert forced to break through his own firewall and rob the bank that employs him.

And why would Jack do such a thing? Because a smooth-talking thief, Bill Cox (Paul Bettany), has taken Jack’s wife and children hostage in their own home, that’s why. Cox and his crew of henchmen (per formula, the crew includes one super- talented computer geek, one muscular gunman, and one weirdo-watchdog) barge in on the family in the guise of pizza deliverymen (so much for Jack’s at-home security system). They force Jack to go to work the next day as if everything were normal, so he can begin processing the transfer of thousands of customer accounts to Cox’s offshore repository. But things are not normal at Jack’s bank; it’s in the process of merging with another bank. That other bank has its own security expert (Robert Patrick), and he, at least, has the good sense to be suspicious when Jack starts acting strangely stressed and is seen roaming the vaults with Cox, his new and unexplained associate.

Alan Arkin and Robert Forster are wasted in small parts as bank executives, and Virginia Madsen as Jack’s wife has little to do except remain calm when things go awry and the crew gets nasty: Cox has a disconcerting passive-aggressive streak, which he takes out on Jack’s youngest child, a boy with allergies, and (also per formula) other heart-tugging health problems. Since Ford is miscast, there’s little he can do to zip up the film’s boring heist scheme. It’s not so much that Ford looks too old to be bashing around bad guys; the problem has more to do with his dimming charisma and always-limited ingenuity. His Jack has only two moods: pissed off, and really pissed off.

It doesn’t help that Bettany, an intriguing British actor (A Beautiful Mind) has been homogenized to the point of being a totally uninteresting villain; Cox’s CEO-style reserve might’ve been livelier if he’d been given a personality trait to go along with it, like, say, intelligence. Only Robert Patrick—best known as the sleek T-1000 in Terminator 2, and who recently resurfaced with a vivid turn as Johnny Cash’s alcoholic father in Walk the Line—brings any chutzpah to his role, miniscule as it is. Firewall might’ve had a bit more fire if Patrick, rather than a fading brand name like Ford, had been cast as the hard-pressed paterfamilias.

—Ann Morrow


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