DVD Review HTF REVIEW: The White Countess

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Aaron Silverman, May 16, 2006.

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  1. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

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    In another setting, Sofia’s employment by Jackson might simply lead to the inevitable hookup, but this is 1937 Shanghai – Manchuria has been under the thumb of Japan for years already, while the Kuomintang and Communists vie with local warlords for influence over the rest of China. That none of them would be capable of standing up to the Japanese army isn’t lost on anyone, nor are the imperial ambitions of the Japanese. The film provides a concrete reminder of the Japanese threat in the form of Mr. Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada), a mysterious Japanese traveler who befriends Jackson, intrigued by his ambition to create something special apart from the dark world of intrigue and war that they inhabit. Whenever the outside world fades from the foreground, Matsuda appears to re-inject a sense of foreboding.

    The White Countess is a solid period romance/ drama in the fine Merchant Ivory tradition. The story and production design are well integrated with the interwar Shanghai setting, although the film is not without its faults. Some of the plot elements feel rushed – for example, we learn of Jackson’s dream of getting the money to open his own club, then see him acquire it suddenly, and then we’re only a “One Year Later” intertitle from the establishment in full swing. Also, we don’t really feel the transition of Sofia and Jackson’s relationship from mutual respect to actual romance – while it doesn’t come out of nowhere, it seems to happen mainly because it’s inevitable for the leads in this tale to get together. In addition, essentially no background historical information is provided – while it’s possible to enjoy the film without knowledge of the real-life political situation or the origins of the characters, that knowledge certainly enhances the viewer’s understanding of the characters and their surroundings. Why are Russian princesses living in poverty in China? Why does nobody trust the Japanese? What’s going on during the climax of the film, and what does the ending mean for the various characters? But while these aspects may be imperfect, everything still works well enough to carry the film to its thrilling (despite its reliance on a slightly implausible event) conclusion. The acting, direction and design are more than enough to offset the relatively minor corner-cutting of the plot.


    THE WAY I SEE IT: 4/5

    The image is very good, although in some respects it falls shy of being great. The color palette ranges from soft and dusty on hot afternoons to bright and vivid in the jazz clubs, but blacks are perhaps a step grayer than they could have been. The level of detail is quite respectable without being eye-popping. Some scenes seem much softer than others – whether this is intentional or not is hard to say. There’s no edge enhancement to speak of, and no digital artifacts are visible at all without extremely close scrutiny.


    THE WAY I HEAR IT: 4/5

    The audio is very well done. It lives mostly in front, although the surrounds and LFE are tastefully employed by the music and effects tracks. There are a couple of spots in the film where the sound really stands out, such as a horse race that rumbles dozens of galloping hooves through the subwoofer. For the most part, though, it’s dialogue and music. That the variety of accents, both real and put on, are easily comprehensible reflects very positively on the sound design and mix.


    THE SWAG: 2/5 (rating combines quality and quantity)

    Commentary With James Ivory and Natasha Richardson

    This is, for the most part, a pretty solid track. Ivory and Richardson cover most of the usual commentary fodder. They focus mainly on story elements as opposed to technical production information. Unfortunately, as the film progresses, they seem to run out of things to say now and then, leading to extended periods of dead space.

    Behind The Scenes of The White Countess (11:12)

    This featurette mixes some behind-the-scenes footage with relatively lightweight cast and crew interviews. As an EPK, it’s decent.

    Making of The White Countess (13:26)

    This piece covers more of the production, including interviews with the director, production designer, costume designer, choreographer, cinematographer, and effects producer. It could have been a lot longer, but as far as it goes, it’s pretty interesting.

    A Tribute To Ismail Merchant (12:59)

    A very nice retrospective of the career of late producer Ismail Merchant (this was his final film). While it’s not terribly deep, the interviews with Merchant and those who worked with him are a treat.

    Trailers
    • Memoirs Of A Geisha (2:36) (DD2.0; 1.85:1 anamorphic)
    • Why We Fight (1:54) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
    • The Passenger (2:09) (DD2.0; 1.85:1 anamorphic)
    • Look At Me (1:56) (DD5.1; 2.35:1 anamorphic)
    • Ladies In Lavender (2:02) (DD2.0; 1.85:1 non-anamorphic)
    • The Best Of WWII Movies (1:21) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 non-anamorphic)
    • The Premiere Frank Capra DVD Collection (1:35) (DD2.0; 1.33:1 non-anamorphic)

    SUMMING IT ALL UP

    The Way I Feel About It: 3.5/5
    The Way I See It: 4/5
    The Way I Hear It: 4/5
    The Swag: 2/5


    The White Countess is a very good, if not great, romantic drama and a fitting coda to the storied career of late producer Ismail Merchant. Excellent performances bring nicely fleshed-out characters to life against a fascinating historical background – this might be what would happen if Indiana Jones visited Howard’s End. Superior A/V quality and a good selection of extra features help to make this a disc worth checking out.

    Viewer Research Project Alert!: After watching the film, look up the respective histories of Macau and Hong Kong in World War II in order to fully appreciate the ending.
     
  2. JonathanYu

    JonathanYu Auditioning

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    Good Review! It was shot in Shanghai
     
  3. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

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    Thanks, Jonathan!
     

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