Shanghaied: "The White Countess"

I refer, of course, to the original, nautical meaning of the verb "shanghai" (and here I invoke the sainted assistance of the OED): "To drug or otherwise render insensible, and ship on board a vessel wanting hands." Perhaps this particularly springs to mind because I have just reached the point of Davie's abduction in my reading of "Kidnapped," but I tend to think that it was in fact inspired by the near-comatose state of boredom evoked by this tedious film. The movie is set in Shanghai at the particularly turbulent period just before the second World War, and we wait in vain (for a creaking, arthritic two hours and eighteen minutes) for the sort of politically-inspired anguish or even old fashioned adventurousness that time, place and cinematic precedent with both might seem to imply. But "The White Countess" manages to take the energy out of kidnappery; when someone is finally shanghaied the whole event seems to take place at an emotional crawl and have very few consequences. (It is interesting to note that MI:iii's Shanghai scenes also took place in a strange, claustrophobic lull in an otherwise, well, explosive and expansive adventure flick.)

How could so many talented people combine to produce this kind of cinematic sedative? Much has been made by defenders of this film (and even many of its critics) of the fine quality of the central performances. I can't see it. I have long been a devoted fan of Ralph Fiennes. What I normally enjoy about his performances, and about other Merchant-Ivory films, is the delicacy of the characterization, a pervasive sense of subtext that may have to do the literariness of the films' sources and the (somewhat) greater access to the interior life of characters we get in literature than on stage and screen. In "The White Countess," Fiennes is not in his normal, finely honed repressive mode, and his extroverted character (a blind, American ex-diplomat with a tragic past but a hopeful outlook) seems somehow messy, even hammy. It still makes me cringe to think of the scene in which he mimes riding a horse while at the race track. Eurggh.

"The White Countess" - **

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