Former American diplomat Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes, "The Constant Gardener") spends his nights cruising from one Shanghai dive to the next. One evening the blind man makes the acquaintance of Mr. Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada, "The Last Samurai," "The Twilight Samurai"), who agrees with his grand assessment of the drinking establishment's caliber and relates to Jackson's dream of opening the perfect nightclub. When Jackson moves on to a dance hall, he finds his true inspiration in Countess Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson, "Asylum"), a refugee from the Bolshevik Revolution reduced to supporting her family as a taxi dancer and sometime prostitute. Jackson makes his dream come true and Sofia becomes the hostess of the club he names after her, "The White Countess."
The last Merchant Ivory coproduction is an odd duck, definitely one of their 2nd tier efforts, and yet, it's an oddly likable film buoyed by a charismatic turn by Ralph Fiennes as a blind former diplomat who lives internally after the world political arena he once moved in dealt him a tragic hand and the thoroughly convincing Natascha Richardson as a Russian Countess fallen on hard times.
Jackson keeps his past history private, and even though Sofia has 'the allure, the tragedy, the weariness' that he's looking for, he keeps their relationship on a polite business level. He does not even tell her how he was blinded when she asks, so she, in turn, does not discuss her private life with him. Two things occur, however, which crack Jackson's facade. One afternoon, Sofia is walking with Katya through the French district and they pass Jackson sitting at an outdoor cafe. Katya's curiosity about her mother's boss makes her bold and the young girl connects with something in him. The three begin to embark on cordial excursions. Then one night, the son of a former business colleague, Tom Crane (Lee Pace, TV's "Wonderfalls"), can no longer hold his tongue about Jackson's degenerate behavior and tells his former mentor off, unveiling Matsuda as the mastermind of Japanese invasions in the bargain. Agitated, Jackson then overhears a new patron making a pass at Sofia and he boils over, throwing the man out of the club and passionately throwing himself at her. Sofia calms him and leaves, mistaking the reason for his outburst.
Olga (Lynn Redgrave, "Gods and Monsters," "Kinsey"), who has taken every opportunity to spurn the way her daughter-in-law earns her money, if not the money itself, asks her to obtain $300 to secure their passage to Hong Kong. With no where else to turn, Sofia voices the need to Jackson, who gives her the money even though he realizes its purpose. As the Japanese invade Shanghai, Matsuda makes an unwelcome visit to his friend but in so doing, having seen Sofia swept up in the crush of people at the docks, tells Jackson what he needs to hear.
Director James Ivory ("The Remains of the Day," "Le Divorce") has been unable to achieve a rhythm for this film. It moves in fits and starts, awkwardly lurching ahead, then slowing for a while to reflect. The screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro ("The Remains of the Day," "The Saddest Music in the World") has many elements to it - Jackson's tragedy, Sofia's tragedy, their relationship, Sofia's degradation by her mother-in-law Olga and sister-in-law Greshenka (Madeleine Potter, "The Golden Bowl," "The Girl in the Café") and their sway over her daughter Katya (Madeleine Daly), the volatile political climate of 1936 Shanghai and Jackson's relationship with Matsuda, who helps him create the Countess's perfect ambiance with his political connections - and many of these pieces never mesh with the whole. For what is ultimately a love story, the film's two protagonists, Jackson and Sofia, mostly live in their own, separate worlds, two different films that occasionally intersect, and even those pieces have their standalone elements. A subplot about Sofia's Aunt Sara (Vanessa Redgrave, "Mrs. Dalloway," "The Pledge") and Uncle Peter (John Wood, "Chocolat") clashing with Olga over the appropriateness of calling upon an old family friend, now the French consul, is too removed from Sofia's world, however pertinent its consequences. And yet, both Sofia and Jackson's stories are involving in and of themselves. One just wishes their story together had been given more focus, something which only occurs at "Countess's" conclusion.
Even director of photography, the great cinematographer Christopher Doyle ("In the Mood for Love"),, doesn't maintain an even tone. While his filming of the club is darkly romantic, reflecting Jackson's character, and the Belinskys are shot in the cold drabness of Sofia's current condition, other brief snippets look downright cheesy. Sofia's memory of a glittering ball, presented amidst swirling snow flakes, is the stuff of a Hallmark television movie and Jackson's win at the racetrack, where he earns the cash to fund his dreamworld, looks like it was shot inside a photo booth. A bit of fanciful animation stands in for Katya's impression of a glass panel box is lovely, but at odds with the rest of the film.
The performances, though, are mostly above fault. Fiennes, who has had an extraordinary year in 2005, paints a perfect doomed romantic. His portrayal of blindness is unfussy and his repeated tapping of his forehead ('I can see it all in here') indicates that more than his sight now lives only in his head. If his accent wavers a bit, it's forgivable, because Fiennes makes Jackson's soul flicker too, and he's the main reason to see the film. That's not to dismiss Richardson, who maintains her Russian accent throughout, and does indeed project Jackson's ideal of melancholy allure. Her mother, Vanessa, gives one of her genteelly ethereal turns as the kindly aunt, while her aunt Lynn specializes in a more sold type of woman, this one with a vicious streak. If the two Madeleines, Potter and Daly, appear to have a real family resemblance as Katya and her paternal aunt, it's because they are the other real life mother/daughter acting team in the cast. Allan Corduner ("De-Lovely," "Vera Drake") warms up Sofia's environment as the Jewish tailor, Mr. Fienstein, who watches out for her and Katya. Hiroyuki Sanada lends Matsuda a good mix of mystery and companionability.
"The White Countess" isn't a successful film, but it is well worth seeing nonetheless. It's like a downshifted version of "The Quiet American" with a happier ending.
Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) was a prominent American diplomat assigned to China during the 1930’s but had to retire from his post when blinded for reasons, initially, unknown. The former embassy counsel spends his time idling in a local Shanghai taxi club where expatriate Russian aristocrat, Sophia (Miranda Richardson), comes to his attention. When Jackson makes a killing on a fortuitous horse race bet he sees Sophia as the key to finding his dream in “The White Countess.”
This is the last, the final, collaboration between the decades-long filmmaking team of James Ivory and the late Ishmael Merchant who brought us such wonderful films as “A Room with a View” and “Howard’s End.” Their finale traverses the world to coastal China on the eve of the Japanese invasion.
Jackson has a vision – he wants to own and run an establishment,” a club that caters to people who want to drink and meet others of different political and social beliefs. He makes the acquaintance of Mr. Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada), a mysterious but influential Japanese “businessman” in Shanghai to explore possibilities for his power and land hungry home nation. Mr. Matsuda will have enormous influence of Jackson in the year to come.
Jackson’s great good fortune arrives when he puts every yen he has on a long shot at the track. The big win now allows the ex-diplomat to buy the club that he always wanted. But, something is missing. This changes when Todd overhears Sophia Belinsky talking to a young Russian deliveryman. In his inadvertent eavesdropping he learns that the she was married into the Russian royal family, now in exile since the Communist takeover. She earns her money in whatever way she can to support her daughter and superior-acting but penniless in-laws.
Sophia’s regal bearing and grace is obvious to blind Jackson and he proposes that she go to work for him. She misinterprets the offer, at first, thinking that is just more of her present condition. Jackson assures her that his intentions are only wholesome and he wants her to simply be the club’s hostess, welcoming and entertaining their guests, and nothing more, at a good salary. His only requirement is that they keep their relationship in the club, not out. The arrangement works well for over a year.
Japan’s imperialistic hegemony begins to encroach into China and Shanghai becomes the funnel for the way out of the country for natives and other nationals alike. Sophia’s family – mother-in-law Olga (Lynn Redgrave), Aunt Sara (Vanessa Redgrave) and the rest – treat the countess like a servant, using her earnings for their own creature comforts. As the enemy approaches, the family decides to flee to Hong Kong, taking Sophia’s daughter, Katya (Madeleine Potter). Their plan is to have Sophia – an embarrassment because of how she once earned money, for their benefit – join them later, even though “later” will likely never be.
The White Countess” borders on being a mere soap opera but, in the hands of Merchant-Ivory and with its superb cast, it comes through as a character study and period drama that is much better than it could have been.
Ralph Fiennes gives a performance with nuance as a man who is living a second life but without the benefit of sight. He counts on the help of his driver and companion (Luoyong Wang) to keep him out of trouble but, still, has a stubborn streak of independence, despite his lack of sight. When Sophia arrives on the scene, Jackson, more and more, relies on the attractive former aristocrat for company and wisdom. Their time together as boss/worker changes, gradually, into friendship and, maybe, something approaching love.
The story has other layers, too, as it delves into the lives and delusions of Sophia’s in-laws who honestly believe that it is her duty to care for them. But, they, in their minds, owe her nothing in return as they plan their own rescue. It’s a bit melodramatic but the skilled veteran players help give this side story some dimension.
It is never clear on the severity of Jackson’s affliction that makes it difficult to gauge Fiennes’s performance as a blind man. Some of his sojourns onto the streets, particularly near the end, are far-fetched and require suspension of disbelief as he overcomes great difficulties. But, the actor proves his mettle, otherwise, once again. Fiennes has had a good year as an actor with his strong performance in The Constant Gardener,” the voice of the villain in Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and, now, “The White Countess.”
Miranda Richardson gives a layered performance as Sophia, though a bit too untainted by her life of compromise and submission. She carries herself, though, with grace and does a credible, not caricature, Russian accent. The Redgrave sisters are, of course, fine. Hiroyuki Sanada gives an enigmatic performance, as Mr.Matsuda, until his motives become apparent. The rest, including Allan Corduner as Sophia’s confidante and fellow ex-pat, elder Samuel, fill in the background well.
Production values are solid though they have the look of being shot on a back lot instead of on location (though Shanghai is listed as location on IMDB). Kazuo Ishiguro’s script is interesting in its depiction of a little know bit of history (to our Western minds, at least) but never resonates literal power. But, he actors help flesh out the story.
Fiennes and Richardson are worth the price of theater admission but, with so many other great films available, this might be best left to rental. Put it on your Netflix list. I give it a B.
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