Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5.
United Kingdom/Germany/China/USA, 2005. Merchant Ivory Productions, Sony Pictures Classics, Shanghai Film Group, VIP 3 Medienfonds, Global Cinema Group, Rising Star, China Film Co-Production Corporation. Screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro. Cinematography by Christopher Doyle. Produced by Ismail Merchant, Zhonglun Ren. Music by Richard Robbins. Production Design by Andrew Sanders. Costume Design by John Bright. Film Editing by John David Allen.
Russian aristocrats who survived the revolution live in squalor and anonymity in 1930s Shanghai, with beautiful Natasha Richardson (in one of her final roles) working the streets to support her family while also enduring their judgment for her efforts (Richardson’s real life mother and aunt, Vanessa Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave, play her relatives here). She meets a British diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) who is tired of his useless duties in the city and he proposes to help her by asking her to be part of his new project, hiring her to be the room-brightening hostess of a bar he plans to open. As the two of them get to know each other better they dance around their mutual sympathy, afraid to see it grow to something more significant, hindered from expressing themselves freely because of their haunting pasts: he lost his sight in a fire that was devastating to his personal as well as physical life, and she remains terrified of the threat of death she left behind. Their ambivalent tension runs alongside her issues with her hypocritical sister-in-law (Madeleine Potter) who wants to take her daughter away from her, her method of earning money making her more vulnerable to being shut out of her family’s future as the likelihood of Japanese invasion grows. This elegant period drama was the last Merchant Ivory project to be produced by Ismail Merchant, who passed away just before its premiere, and it bears all the hallmarks of the company’s finest work, from the top-notch period details (including some very impressive crowd sequences) to the first-rate cast and a premise that, despite hearkening back to the likes of Casablanca, feels unusual and original. Kazuo Ishiguro’s original screenplay has a few wrinkles to work out, at times it feels like the romance is too muted and doesn’t figure centrally enough in a story that can’t decide on the level of importance that the political angle should play, and there’s no denying that his ending is too tidy and convenient for something that plays its morality with such complexity the rest of the time, but he does pull off some very intelligent dialogue and bewitching situations.