Shanghai Surprise

It would be nice to report that the final collaboration between James Ivory and his late producing partner, Ismail Merchant, ranked with their best work, such as the luminous "Howards End" and "A Room With a View." Though "The White Countess," from an original screenplay by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro ("The Remains of the Day"), sounds mouthwateringly good on paper, it's a cake that never rises.

The setting has glamour galore: Shanghai in 1936 and '37, on the eve of the Japanese invasion. It's a sophisticated, decadent, international city that plays host to a family of impoverished White Russian aristocrats (Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave, John Wood, Madeleine Potter) and to a blind American former diplomat named Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), who hides his personal tragedy behind a dapper demeanor. Jackson dreams of opening an elegant nightclub where the horrors of the real world can be shut out. In a city teeming with political intrigue, where Chinese nationalists rub shoulders with Communists, Jewish refugees suffer anti-Semitic taunts and Japanese spies prepare for an invasion, you can bet the real world will have the last laugh.

Jackson's star attraction will be Richardson's Sofia, a widowed countess forced to support her young daughter by working as a taxi dancer in a low-life club, a profession her in-laws deplore while surviving on the income it provides them. "The White Countess" has to compete in our memories with Steven Spielberg's big-budget "Empire of the Sun," which created indelible images of Shanghai on the brink of World War II. Ivory's lower budget wouldn't matter so much if Ishiguro's story seduced us, but his fallen aristocrats and tragic dreamers feel like secondhand literary conceits. They never come fully alive. Ishiguro is a wonderful novelist, but perhaps not a natural-born screenwriter. "The White Countess" feels schematic and dramatically inert. Ivory, for all the acting talent at his disposal, finds plenty of style in prewar Shanghai, but its pulse eludes him.