The White Countess (2005)

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Released 27-Sep-2006

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Main Menu Introduction
Audio Commentary-James Ivory & Natasha Richardson
Featurette-Making Of
Featurette-Behind The Scenes
Featurette-A Tribute To Ismail Merchant
Trailer-Capote, Rent, Sueno, Mirrormask
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 2005
Running Time 130:01
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (90:17) Cast & Crew
Start Up Ads Then Menu
Region Coding 2,4,5 Directed By James Ivory
SONY Pictures
Sony Pictures Home Entertain
Starring Ralph Fiennes
Natasha Richardson
Vanessa Redgrave
Hiroyuki Sanada
Lynn Redgrave
Allan Corduner
Da Ying
Madeleine Daly
Dan Herzberg
Jean-Pierre Lorit
Lee Pace
Madeleine Potter
Pierre Seznec
Case ?
RPI $39.95 Music Graham Preskett
Richard Robbins

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
Czech Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
Hungarian Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
Polish Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired
English Audio Commentary
Dutch Audio Commentary
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    The Merchant Ivory partnership, made up of Producer Ismail Merchant & Director James Ivory has unfortunately made its last film due to the death in 2005 of Ismail Merchant. This film was the last production of their fertile movie making partnership which produced such Oscar nominated classics as The Remains of the Day, Howard's End and A Room With a View. Most of their films are period dramas such as this one usually involving romance and family tensions. Unfortunately, The White Countess is nowhere near the quality of the films mentioned above, despite an excellent cast and interesting setting.

    The main characters are Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), an American diplomat who was blinded in an accident and Countess Sofia Belinskya (Natasha Richardson), a Russian aristocrat who has fallen on hard times after escaping the Russian revolution by fleeing to China with her dead husband's family. They both end up living in Shanghai and the story opens in 1936. Jackson is depressed and spends most of his life hanging around in bars, which were prevalent in the cosmopolitan Shanghai of the time. He is obviously lonely and without a family although we do not find out why until later in the film. Sofia, a hostess in one of the bars, lives in two dingy rooms with her aunt (Vanessa Redgrave), the aunt's elderly husband (who was a Prince) plus her mother-in-law (Lynn Redgrave) and sister-in-law. They refuse to accept the situation they find themselves in and although they take the money Sofia earns they look down on her due to the way she earns it. Jackson's dream is to open 'The bar of his dreams' which he envisions in graphic detail in his mind and gets the opportunity to do after winning a large bet. He wants the bar to have a beautiful but sad hostess and when he meets Sofia he decides that she is the right person. He offers her a job which she readily accepts to get away from the tawdry existence of what amounts to prostitution. Jackson also meets a mysterious Japanese man, Mr Matsuda who shares his interest in bars and they form a friendship. Initially, Todd and Sofia resist the urge to get involved in each other lives outside the bar but slowly they unravel each other's secrets as the threat of Japanese invasion looms.

    There are certainly some good things about this production; impressive costumes, lovely cinematography and fine acting. However, unlike most of the Merchant Ivory productions it is quite tedious, especially for the first 90 minutes, where very little happens and you have a hard time caring emotionally about any of the characters. The issue seems to be a plot which doesn't have enough story to keep it going and some sloppy directing and editing which results in a very slow pace. The last half hour is better but by then it is too late to care. The title is a reference to Sofia and is also the name of the bar which Todd opens. The screenplay was written by Kazuo Ishiguro who wrote the novel which The Remains of the Day was based on, but not the screenplay. The dialogue and action comes across as overly literary which adds to the pacing issues. The film was shot completely on location in Shanghai which adds authenticity, although obviously that is a city which has changed markedly since the 1930s. The two leads do excellent work with difficult characters.

    I cannot really recommend this film, especially if you are not already a fan of Merchant Ivory's style. Even if you are, like my wife and I, this film is a struggle.

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Transfer Quality


    The video quality is good but nothing special.

    The feature is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio 16x9 enhanced which is probably the original aspect ratio. IMDB lists it as 1.66:1 but it looks right to me at 1.85:1 and other releases are in the same aspect ratio.

    The picture was not overly clear and sharp probably due to a less than average bitrate. It wasn't too soft but still left something to be desired. There was no evidence of low level noise. Shadow detail was decent but not great. There was some occasional light grain such as at 99:30.

    The colour was reasonable but never really seemed vibrant which may be a deliberate choice by the filmmakers. There was also some bleeding here and there.

    No artefacts were noticeably present.

    There are subtitles in English for the hearing impaired and many other languages. The English subtitles were clear and easy to read. There was also an automatic subtitle stream which translated non-English languages. Subtitles were also available for the commentary track.

    The layer change occurs at 90:17 and although noticeable was well placed at the end of a scene.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    The audio quality is very good but mostly front focused.

    This DVD contains four audio options, an English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack encoded at 448 Kb/s, and the same in Czech, Polish & Hungarian.

    Dialogue was clear and easy to understand despite being a little quiet and there was no problem with audio sync.

    The score of this film by Richard Robbins, a regular Merchant Ivory collaborator, is very good and there is also a smattering of jazz and classical pieces.

    The surround speakers were not overly obvious in the mix except for a couple of times when planes flew overhead or explosions occurred. These were mostly towards the end of the film such as at 89:00. Otherwise the surround speakers were limited to mild atmosphere.

    The subwoofer was also only used occasionally for explosions.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use



    The menu included was still and silent including the ability to select scenes, languages and subtitles.

Commentary - Director James Ivory & Natasha Richardson

    This commentary was a real surprise making the film seem more interesting than it was during my viewing of it. This really is a high quality commentary. Richardson is very effective in adding interesting comments and asking Ivory very worthwhile questions. They discuss the credit sequence, shooting difficulties, costumes, sets, locations, the cinematography, casting, changes from the original script, the music, choreography, the cars, visual effects and also tell some interesting anecdotes. Well worth a listen.

Making of The White Countess (13:26)

    Presented 4x3. This is a decent making of, focusing on the technical aspects of the film, featuring interviews with many of the important crew members such as the director, production designer, costume designer, choreographer, Director of Photography and others. They cover the filming, location difficulties, dance sequences, costumes, special effects, and more. Not bad.

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

    Not as good as the previous featurette, this one is much more promotional in style, with a bonus annoying voiceover. All of the major cast members are interviewed and they discuss the story and their characters mostly. Lots of scenes from the film are included and it feels like an extended trailer.

A Tribute to Ismail Merchant (12:59)

    A reasonably short featurette about the late producer of this film, his life and career from his birth in Bombay, through his early career and then his long partnership with James Ivory. Mostly made up of older footage of interviews with Ivory and the man himself. Worth watching.


    Trailers are included for Capote, Rent, Sueno & MirrorMask.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    This movie has been released in virtually the same format in Region 1, except that our local release has more language and subtitle options. A draw.


    A slowly paced last offering from the partnership of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory.

    The video quality is good.

    The audio quality is very good.

    A decent set of extras is included.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Daniel Bruce (Do you need a bio break?)
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV667A DVD-V DVD-A SACD, using Component output
DisplaySony FD Trinitron Wega KV-AR34M36 80cm. Calibrated with Digital Video Essentials (PAL). This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 576i (PAL)/480i (NTSC).
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationPioneer VSX-511
SpeakersMonitor Audio Bronze 2 (Front), Bronze Centre & Bronze FX (Rears) + Yamaha YST SW90 subwoofer

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