Last year saw the passing of Ismail Merchant, the producer half of Merchant-Ivory; with his partner, director James Ivory, the Bombay native developed a scheme to fund English-language filmmaking in India, and thus also a medium through which the postcolonial empire could reflect on its changing status. Their later (and increasingly successful) films began to seem stifled, but even the most static and ornamental of these hold some pungent kernel of transformative identity.

It's a raw emotional nucleus that's still present in their last production,

The White Countess

, but it's more elaborately concealed than ever before amidst the set dressing of 1930s Shanghai, just at the first wave of Japan's imperialism. Ralph Fiennes plays Todd Jackson, a former American diplomat whose shining hour at Versailles was, he now believes, a waste of international time; his wife and children subsequently died in a pair of bombings, the second of which left him blind. Jackson's mockery of an existence consists only of lurking in Shanghai's seedier establishments, brooding over drinks and jazz.

It's in one such club that he meets two people who will change his outlook: the epicurean Mr. Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada, surpassing Claude Rains in intelligence and subtlety despite a character that practically has INSCRUTABLE ASIAN stamped across its forehead), who shares Jackson's taste in nightlife-and the Countess Sofia (Natasha Richardson), an aristocratic Russian émigré who, post-revolution, must work as a taxi dancer to support her extended family, much to their shame. They aren't too ashamed to take the money, though, when a thoroughly charmed Jackson asks Sofia to be the hostess of his own nightspot. But why does Mr. Matsuda visit Shanghai so often, and how much time do the staff and clientele of

The White Countess

have to revel in peacetime? Ever heard of Rick's Café?

The story's delicacy is so painstaking that it borders on the uneventful, and most of us will find our attention wandering during the umpteenth allusive but going-nowhere-fast exchange between Sofia and Jackson, he armored in American idiocy and she in her tragic Russian womanliness. Richardson, it has to be admitted, is almost unbearably beautiful in a way actresses seldom are anymore; her face has depths like Bacall's or Garbo's and, once you fall in, it's hard to extricate yourself. Richardson's real-life relatives, the Redgraves, are brilliant as well and, in the last half-hour, the plot abruptly becomes absolutely edge-of-the-seat. If you're already in the club,

The White Countess

is unmissable-but if you are not a fan, this probably won't be the after-dinner drink to convert your tastes.