Published Dec 01, 2005The latest Merchant/Ivory movie is pretty much like all the others: it's pretty; it's set in the past; and it's obsessed with period detail to the detriment of theme, pacing or general interest in what's going on.
The setting this time is '30s Shanghai and it centres on a blind American named Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) who sets up a nightclub in honour of Sofia (Natasha Richardson), ex-Russian royalty who supports her family through taxi dancing and sometimes prostitution.
The whole thing is contrived (by author Kazuo Ishiguro, who should know better) to provide a) a romantic "when will they figure out they're in love?" plot, b) a posh location for the principals to prance around in; and c) a big Japanese invasion finish in which people will be dramatically separated.
It's completely by the numbers, made for people who think Masterpiece Theatre qualifies as culture instead of genteel escapism. And while genteel escapism never looked as good as when it was shot by ace DP Christopher Doyle, you have to be pretty naïve to think it qualifies as anything other than a well-filmed episode of Antiques Roadshow.
As it stands, bad accents abound from all of the leads (with Lynn Redgrave's disapproving sister-in-law providing the most wince-making tones), and one wonders why, beyond the chaotic climax, it was set in this milieu rather than any other?
In the end, it's a bunch of white people using Asia as a backdrop for their passion, (no news at all in these Memoirs of a Geisha days), and while it's nominally entertaining for its craft it isn't anything to get excited about thematically or intellectually. Also, it was shot on digital video, and unfortunately, it shows. (Mongrel Media)