The late Ismail Merchant
I have always loved the film productions of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, most of whose best work over forty years was written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Last night I went to one of their last productions, The White Countess, which was written not by Ms Jhabvala, but by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Japanese-born, British-raised writer who became famous with his novel The Remains of the Day, that was translated into one of the most wonderful of the Merchant-Ivory productions, for which Ms. Jhabvala wrote the screenplay in 1985.
Part of the success of this trio surely must have come from the fact that they were such a mixed bag, Merchant being an Indian Moslem, Ivory an American Protestant, and Jhabvala a German Jew. Yet from 1965 when they burst on to the scene with Shakespeare Wallah, until the present day this team has produced one intelligent, thoughtful, inspiring film after another. Personally I can remember Heat and Dust, (1983), featuring one of the most delectable performances by the glorious Julie Christie, A Room With a View, (1985) an adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel, Howard’s End (1992) another Forster adaptation by Ms. Jhabvala, and the wonderful Remains of the Day (1993) that the team adapted from Ishiguro’s superb novel.
Merchant died in 2005, which has brought an end to this string of successes, and it seems that at the age of 84 Ms Jhabvala has laid down her pen, which gives me permission to say that The White Countess was the least successful Merchant-Ivory production I can remember, although it was crowded with distinguished and excellent actors.
Unfortunately Ishiguro’s screenplay moved too slowly to really grab one: and for that matter, for a story set in 1930s Shanghai, the tale was too convoluted and interiorized within its major characters. The Merchant-Ivory productions, although always about interesting personalities, also usually managed to lay out the socio-political background in which the major characters found themselves. In this respect, this movie was somewhat deficient, I felt, although it certainly tried hard to suggest the confusing politics of those years as the Japanese were preparing to invade China.
The main character was played by Ralph Fiennes, and was called Todd Jackson, a former American diplomat who had lost his wife and child, and himself become blinded, in an explosion. No longer active in politics, he wanted to open a high-class night club in which he could rub shoulders with the leaders of society. He made the acquaintance of a Russian émigré countess who was earning a living as a taxi dancer for herself, her daughter, and a family of hangers-on, all of them White Russian nobility, and, impressed, he asked her to join him in his enterprise, which he named The White Countess, after her. (In the cast were a parcel of Redgraves, Vanessa, Lynn, and Natasha Richardson, filling the roles of the White Russians.)
This was all clear enough, but one kept wondering when the real action was to start, and what form it would take. Great prominence was given to a mysterious Japanese who befriended Jackson, but against whom he had been warned, because he was said to be a man who turned up just before the Japanese walked into wherever he was. In other words, a dangerous man, as indeed he eventually turned out to be.
With the arrival of the brutal Japanese, the expatriate citizens of the French, British and European sections of Shanghai decided to decamp, and rushed for the boats that could take them to safety. The countess’s family had insisted on keeping from her young daughter knowledge of the disreputable work she did to keep them all alive, and decided they should leave her behind when they left. The denouement, as the blind diplomat, obviously now in love with the countess, struggled to find her in the crowd, and finally did so, was full of action and tension.
The acting of Fiennes and Natasha Richardson (who died from a head injury while on holiday in the north of Quebec) both gave beautiful performances in the featured roles, but these were hardly enough to rescue the somewhat somnolent pace of the movie, or the confusions of Ishiguro’s script.
This is probably the last we can hope to see of the great Merchant-Ivory productions, and I cannot let them go without expressing my appreciation for their wonderful work over the years and my regret that we will see no more of them. They have been an ornament to the craft of film-making, and no mistake.The night before I saw an even more confusing Italian psychological thriller called The Double Door, which was about a couple who were attacked by robbers as they were guarding a palace full of precious works of art, which the robbers got away with. The man was supposed to have been killed, leaving the woman to undergo a series of remarkable events, all of which turned out to have been figments of her imagination while she was in a three-day coma. Rescued from her coma, she got together with the man who had been thought to be dead, but was very much alive. And the climax to the film came when the woman was discovered to have been involved in the robbery, after which she went off to South America with her lover, one of the robbers. A bit of a struggle to keep all these confusing strands straight in one’s mind. I am not so good at that as I used to be, I guess I have to admit. One of the penalties of age.