'White Countess' marks end of Merchant Ivory era

The White Countess, which opened Wednesday in North America, is the final collaboration of filmmaking team James Ivory and Ismail Merchant.

Their Merchant Ivory partnership is known for elegant period dramas like its 1992 big-screen adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel Howard's End and the Oscar-nominated A Room with View.

Producer Ismail Merchant's death in May at the age of 68 ended a 44-year partnership. Bombay-born Merchant produced more than 40 films with Ivory as director.

Set in 1936 China, The White Countess tells of the end of an era and of a friendship. An American diplomat, played by Ralph Fiennes, runs a nightclub where a former Russian countess, played by Natasha Richardson, is supporting herself by working as a taxi dancer.

The diplomat befriends a Japanese man, but their friendship becomes increasingly difficult because of the Japanese invasion of China. The screenplay was written by Kazuo Ishiguro, who also wrote the novel, The Remains of the Day, which became another hit film for Merchant Ivory.

The White Countess marks a return to the sort of slow-moving period piece involving personal redemption that worked best for the Merchant Ivory collaboration. More recent films, like Le Divorce and The Golden Bowl, have done less well.

"It's an old, old theme. We made so many films about outsiders in some strange, alien environment who are trying to live their lives in some way and connect," Ivory told Reuters in a recent interview.

He said he and Merchant made good partners from the time they formed Merchant Ivory in 1961. At that time, they had similar interests in film and Indian culture and the same goal: making films they wanted to make and telling tales their way.

Ivory, 77, was born in Berkeley, California, and met Merchant in New York. Their first movie in 1963 was The Householder, about Indian newlyweds dealing with cultural changes and their impact on their marriage. It was based on a novel by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who would collaborate with the filmmaking team for years to come.

Merchant Ivory's first major U.S. hit was the 1985 romance A Room with a View which earned eight Oscar nominations and won three Academy Awards for screenplay, costume design and art direction. Remains of the Day followed with nine Oscar nominations and three wins.

Ivory is planning a new film, The City of Your Final Destination, based on a novel about a university professor who wants to persuade the family of a South American writer to allow him write a biographical account of the writer's life. Jhabvala wrote the screenplay.