Leave it to Merchant-Ivory to make World War II tasteful, talky, and dull. The Japanese are about to invade Shanghai, circa 1936; desperate European refugees are scrambling to leave the besieged city; opium, jazz, crime, and prostitution are flourishing in a final, decadent Weimar-style blowout before the bombs fall. Then there's the actual movie. Fallen Russian countess Sofia (Natasha Richardson) supports her dead husband's leeching family by working as a taxi dancer. Matriarch Olga (Lynn Redgrave) treats her like a whore in return—while never forgetting to pocket the nightly earnings, part of which supports Sofia's young daughter. Meanwhile, in the American quarter, blind former diplomat Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) grows impatient with idle political gossiping in leather armchairs. He'd rather be out slumming in the sort of dives, nightclubs, and bordellos where Sofia works.
There's never any doubt that these two lost souls, both haunted by family tragedy, will hook up. The greater wonder is why director James Ivory, producing partner Ismail Merchant (on the last project before his death), and screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro thought we should have to endure so much slow, stagy speechifying before the Japanese invasion finally forces the lovers together. Jackson, as we tediously learn in conversations with Japanese spy Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada), has in his head the Platonic ideal of "the bar of my dreams," separated from the political reality raging outside by "big, heavy doors" that he intends to keep shut. Ishiguro repeats the metaphor so many times that it feels as if all those big, heavy doors are falling on you one by one; eventually, Countess becomes a happier rehash of his The Remains of the Day, with Fiennes in the James Fox role.
Richardson slathers on lipstick and haughty glamour to defy her spiteful family (mother Vanessa Redgrave plays her somewhat sympathetic aunt); the whole Chekhovian clan seems like a lost road-show production of Three Sisters, always pining for Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Hong Kong! Fiennes is so desexualized that the central romance is as about as hot as marble statuary. Richardson eventually becomes the "centerpiece" to his aesthetically anesthetized nightclub (dance, you sad harlequins, dance!), but it still takes 90 minutes for them to kiss. Since he's a widower, our first thought is the movie's last thought—marry her, you fool, to get her and her family out of Shanghai. But sclerotic Merchant-Ivory plotting would never allow anything so direct or so modern as Casablanca, which makes Countess feel about 60 years out of date. (PG-13)