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A Redgrave special at Merchant-Ivory

By Arthur J Pais
May 03, 2004 14:45 IST
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Vanessa RedgraveYou have two daughters working in films," a reporter said to Vanessa Redgrave. "Wouldn't you want to act with them?"

The question was raised a decade ago at the New York press conference of The Ballad of Sad Café, produced by Ismail Merchant.

"Wouldn't it be nice," said Redgrave, the mother of Natasha and Joely Richardson, who have taken the last name of their father, the American director Tony Richardson. "But where will I find a producer?"

Ismail Merchant, one of Redgrave's favourite producers who has cast her in three of his films, including her Oscar-nominated hits Howard's End and The Bostonians, has now signed her along with Natasha in his new film, White Countess.

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The movie, with Ralph Fiennes leading the cast and based on an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, also stars Lynn Redgrave, Vanessa's younger sister.

Merchant's previous association with Ishiguro was in 1993. Their film — The Remains of the Day — that was about unrequited love featured Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins.

"Vanessa is an actress I would love to return film after film," Merchant has said of the Oscar-winning British actress who won a Tony last year for her benchmark performance as a delusional wife and mother in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night.

"Her talent and commitment to cinema is inexhaustible," says Merchant, who is also a close friend of the actress. "And she has been a strong admirer and supporter of Merchant Ivory films for more than two decades."

Budgeted at $16 million, White Countess is to be directed by James Ivory, Merchant's movie partner for over four decades. When most Hollywood-based directors above 60 find it difficult to get film assignments, New York-based Ivory, 75, forges ahead, one film after another. His last film for Merchant Ivory Productions was Le Divorce, which did fairly good business in America, grossing about $14 million, but tanked abroad.

"Even when a film by us doesn't do great business, people are still eager to work with us," notes Merchant. "They know our reputation and our passion for good cinema, and how we go around looking for literary work to adapt for our films."

White Countess, which will start shooting in Shanghai in August, has been acquired by Sony Classics for North American release. Part of the film will also be shot in Rome.

Ismail MerchantSet in late 1930s Shanghai, the film chronicles the relationship between a blind American diplomat and a young White Russian countess reduced to working as a taxi dancer, to support her dead husband's aristocratic family.

While Ivory directs White Countess, Merchant will be busy with The Goddess starring Tina Turner. It will be Merchant's fourth feature film as director. He also served as producer last year on Heights, a film directed by first-timer Chris Terrio and starring Elizabeth Banks (Seabiscuit) as someone who has to learn about coming to terms with her life's problems. Terrio is in his mid 20s.

"Over the past four decades, we have introduced a number of new directors, including [actor] Simon Callow, who directed The Ballad of Sad Café," says Merchant. "Chris is very talented, and we expect him to be a very successful director."

Photograph: Getty Images

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Arthur J Pais