Director James Ivory, working for the last time with his late
producing partner Ismail Merchant, has a stately style that has served him so well because he usually employs it in stately stories (Howards End). But this calls for something different. Ralph Fiennes stars as a blind diplomat in 1936 Shanghai who opens a nightclub and becomes involved with a Japanese agitator (Hiroyuki Sanada) and a displaced Russian aristocrat (Natasha Richardson). Ivory’s instincts and good manners are at odds with nearly everything in his tale – he even manages to mute the jazzy party scenes. The White Countess may take place in a dizzying time, but it unfolds with an excruciating laboriousness.