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Beauty of 'White Countess' is only skin deep

''The White Countess" is the last Merchant-Ivory movie, and it is a watchable disappointment. Sumptuous to look at, tastefully dull, and ultimately rather silly, it whisks us to a far-off land -- the Shanghai expatriate community on the eve of World War II -- and strands us among cooked-up characters and emotions. The film was completed before producer Ismail Merchant's death last May, but longtime partner James Ivory directs as if his attention was elsewhere. The result is a hollow echo of the pair's best work: ''A Room With a View," ''Howards End," and ''The Remains of the Day."

Longtime Merchant-Ivory screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is absent this time -- ''Remains" novelist Kazuo Ishiguro provides the original script -- and maybe that's what spells the difference. In any event, ''White Countess" strains to evoke an upscale ''Casablanca" atmosphere with overtones of Chekhov. If that sounds like an awkward mix, it is.

Once again turning in an exquisitely drawn performance in a movie that doesn't measure up to his gifts, Ralph Fiennes plays Todd Jackson, a former star American diplomat (he was at Versailles) who has become an eccentric Shanghai bon vivant after being blinded in an accident; the details are left cloudy for most of the film, then dropped with not one thud but two. He longs to build ''the perfect nightclub" -- an aesthete's hideout from the world -- and gets the chance when a lucky horse comes in.

Over in the opposite corner is Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson), a beautiful Russian noblewoman who fled the Bolsheviks and now lives in tenement squalor in a poor section of the city. Sofia works as a dance-hall girl, to the horror of her late husband's family -- not that they're above taking the money she brings in -- and her young daughter Katya (newcomer Madeleine Daly) becomes a pawn between the ''fallen woman" and her starchy relatives. Chief tormentors are Sofia's mother-in-law Olga (Lynn Redgrave, acting up a sour-faced storm) and her sister-in-law Greshenka (Madeleine Potter); Aunt Sara (Vanessa Redgrave) and Uncle Peter (John Wood) are more kindly but lost in a fog of bygone gentility.

You could argue that three Redgraves in one movie (Richardson, of course, being Vanessa's daughter) is stacking the deck, but ''White Countess" does remarkably little with such high-voltage casting. Potter, the ethereal Merchant-Ivory discovery (1984's ''The Bostonians") who hasn't been seen much lately, turns in by far the most affecting performance, particularly in a harrowingly inarticulate moment toward the end.

Jackson hires Sofia as his nightclub hostess -- sight unseen, obviously, but he knows her inner sadness somehow reflects outer beauty (it's that kind of movie) -- and ''Countess" skips ahead a year to land on the doorstep of the Japanese invasion. Oddly, hostess and tormented employer have barely come to know each other in that time, but now Katya conspires to bring the two together, and suddenly dark secrets come tumbling out of various closets. Jackson's drinking buddy, a sleek and apolitical Japanese named Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada), acquires less innocent aspects around this point.

This is the kind of beautiful tosh that could work if played for unapologetic melodrama, but the script and the direction keep apologizing. Ivory strives to build a delicate chamber romance at the film's center that ends up looking stiff amid the historical teeming, and he badly muffs the climactic episodes, with the sightless Jackson rushing through the streets of mid-invasion Shanghai and somehow ending up exactly where he wants to be and with whom he wants to be.

Richardson is lovely but inert as Sofia -- she's so rigid she's beginning to resemble late-period Joan Crawford -- and the other actors are nothing if not professional. Fiennes makes you care about Jackson, though. The character stares smilingly into the middle distance with a sort of polite fury, and you know he's seeing the one thing he wishes he were blind to. ''The White Countess" is a big old white elephant of the sort Merchant and Ivory often risked and occasionally fell prey to, and it's certainly not the epitaph one would have hoped, but its star burns as if there's one last thing to prove.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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