The last film of recently deceased producer Ismail Merchant, The White Countess is a fitting epitaph to his career of making quality, if cold, period dramas starring Britain's finest. In the torrid Shanghai of 1936, the Countess of the title is a chic nightclub set up by blind British diplomat Jackson (Ralph Fiennes). Having employed penniless Russian countess Sofia (Natasha Richardson) as his star hostess, it's not long before politics, war and romance sneak into Jackson's stiff-upper-lip life.
As expected from a Merchant Ivory production, '30s Shanghai is richly realised, James Ivory's direction elegant and both Fiennes and Richardson prove accomplished at portraying internal maelstroms raging beneath glacial exteriors. But much like Sofia herself, the whole enterprise is beautiful and well presented yet emotionally unavailable.