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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Lovers of art house filmmaking mourned when producer Ismail Merchant died earlier this year. With director James Ivory, Merchant produced such popular hits as "A Room with a View" and "Howards End." But there was one more film in the Merchant-Ivory pipeline, "The White Countess." It's set in Shanghai on the eve of World War II, and Bob Mondello says it is a fittingly literate end to the Merchant-Ivory partnership.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

The slums of Shanghai are full of foreigners in 1936, many of them down on their luck. But few are further down than the Belinsky family. They are displaced Russian royalty, and they royally resent the fact that Sofia, a onetime countess, supports them by dancing with strangers and sometimes going home with them.

(Soundbite of "The White Countess")

Unidentified Woman #1: We're going to make her stop. And if she won't, then we cast her out. Isn't that right, Olga?

Unidentified Woman #2: Shh. Don't think about it anymore, Mamma. Don't worry yourself. You'll only distress yourself. God will punish her for what she's doing.

Unidentified Child: And you will be punished. If Mamma didn't have to go out to work, then you would have to go instead. Then who would be the wicked one?

Unidentified Woman #1: Oh, silence.

MONDELLO: Denied the kindness of family, Sofia, played by Natasha Richardson, depends on upon the kindness of strangers. But one night at a dance hall, she encounters someone who needs her kindness. Ralph Fiennes plays a blind businessman named Jackson who doesn't recognize at first that she's his guardian angel.

(Soundbite of "The White Countess")

Ms. NATASHA RICHARDSON: (As Sofia) Take me arm. Leave with me.

Mr. RALPH FIENNES: (As Jackson) Oh, Miss, if your intention is to be kind to a blind man, well, I thank you, but I can get along just fine. If you were proposing something altogether different, well, I'd have to tell you that kind of thing doesn't interest me so much just now.

Ms. RICHARDSON: (As Sofia) I wasn't proposing anything like that.

MONDELLO: Sofia is actually rescuing Jackson from muggers. And a few weeks later, he offers to rescue her. He's long dreamed of opening a bar, and he wants her to be its centerpiece. She is perfect, he says, but she is skeptical.

(Soundbite of "The White Countess")

Ms. RICHARDSON: (As Sofia) You can't even see me. You should at least try to feel what I look like. Blind people do that, don't they?

Mr. FIENNES: (As Jackson) There's no need. I know exactly what you're like. You, the bar, everything, it's all up here, inside.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FIENNES: (As Jackson) But instead, maybe we could have that dance.

Ms. RICHARDSON: (As Sofia) You can dance all right?

Mr. FIENNES: (As Jackson) Well, to be frank, I've not tried it since I lost my sight. But I think that with you helping me, I'll be all right.

Ms. RICHARDSON: (As Sofia) So let's dance.

MONDELLO: Into a future neither of them could see. Gathering clouds of war, revolution, the Japanese invasion all are played out with a cultivated richness you expect from the Merchant-Ivory team, but also with an epic quality you may not expect. Shanghai's teeming slums and majestic harbor blend with advancing armies to create a gloriously turbulent final half-hour. It may just be the most ravishing filmmaking James Ivory has done in a career that has more or less centered on being ravishing.

The densely layered politics that lead up to that gorgeous finale are perhaps too complicated and sedate, but they're performed to a fare-thee-well not just by the two leads, but by an acting company so exalted it can relegate Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave to bit parts. Luxurious abundance of this sort is what the Merchant-Ivory brand is all about, of course. It has spent four decades nourishing audiences who crave literate, emotionally resonant filmmaking. And fittingly, "The White Countess" isn't just nourishment for that crowd; it's a feast. I'm Bob Mondello.

SIEGEL: And there are more reviews of current films at our Web site, npr.org.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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