The White Countess
Merchant Ivory Productions
Directed by James Ivory
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, and several related Redgraves
Rated PG-13

If you followed the Academy Award buzz and all the attendant Hollywood-awards news, you may have heard that Rachel Weisz, who just won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in The Constant Gardener, is flummoxed by the lack of love for her costar in that film, Ralph Fiennes. It’s true: he’s been consistently overlooked this year, not just for Gardener but for The White Countess, too, which got in under the wire for Oscar consideration by opening in New York and Los Angeles just before the end of 2005 — and Fiennes’ performance here may well be even better than his turn in Gardener.

Now, if I were gonna give Fiennes an Oscar nom for anything, it would have been for his hilarious voice performance in Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (he turned one simple line — “Come along, Phillip,” directed at a dog — into a universe of snobbery, condescension, and assumed superiority; it’s become a snarky catchphrase among my gang of geeky pals), cuz who knew Ralph Fiennes could be funny? Or maybe he deserves some recognition for his Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where he was disgustingly creepy in a way that went far beyond the noseless makeup/CGI job.

Here in Countess, we have the more prototypical Fiennes character: his Jackson, an American in Shanghai in the late 1930s, is a man who affects detachment, who lets casual insouciance become shorthand for the sophistication he wishes to project. He’s the kind of character who, when he’s portrayed the way he should be, gets the smart actor playing him accused of being cold and impassive. And Jackson’s additional quirk doesn’t help those who demand effusiveness and joviality from everyone onscreen: he’s recently blinded, and his insistence on maintaining his aloofness even when a guiding hand might do him some good further alienates him. Fiennes’ performance becomes even more sublime when you consider that he does genuinely connect with his fellow actors even without the vital tool of eye contact.

Fiennes connects as an actor, that is — his Jackson, on the other hand: not so much. This is a Merchant Ivory film, after all, the last one before the death of producer Ismail Merchant last year — and MI is all about repression and the price one pays for insisting on being a unemotional prick. If only Jackson could let down his guard and open himself up to the possibility of being hurt that comes with friendship and love…

And maybe that’ll happen when he meets sad Sofia (the wonderfully regal Natasha Richardson), a Russian aristocrat down on her luck and working as a taxi dancer in Shanghai. She is not the countess of the title — that’s the club Jackson opens and hires her to be his centerpiece in, no prostitution required (as it may have been at her previous gig, where they meet cute, or as cute as a Mechant Ivory film allows; they meet melancholy, let’s say). He loves the “combination of erotic and tragic” in women, Jackson says — that’s the kind of urbane tripe Jackson tosses off (credit to Fiennes for making it sound as snazzy as Jackson would like it to) — and Sofia has that in spades. Can he let himself relax enough to see her as something more than symbolic and archetypal?

The thing about Merchant Ivory flicks is you can never be sure if a happy ending is in the offing — could be Jackson will end up alone and pretending not to be miserable forever, like Anthony Hopkins’ butler in Remains of the Day. Poor Ralph Fiennes, who’s so good at the unemotional-prick part that you’re never really sure whether you want to see Jackson end up happy, or whether it might be more interesting, from a movie-snob perspective, to see what Fiennes might do with the miserable-forever ending. Chances are, it wouldn’t have involved a lot of showy scenery chewing, anyway, which never boded well for Fiennes’ Oscar chances. It was Hannibal Lecter with his fava beans and nice Chianti that won Hopkins a little golden guy, after all, not that introverted butler.

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