The White Countess - Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, James Ivory
Threat advisory: Guarded - General risk of entertaining activities
Set in Shanghai in the late 1930s, this is the story of the relationship between a disillusioned former US diplomat and a refugee White Russian Countess reduced to a sordid life in the city's bars.
Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), once an American diplomat filled with idealism, lost his sight and is now languishing in Shanghai's grand hotels and elite gentlemen's clubs. A burnt-out case, he has become bitterly disillusioned by Realpolitik and the seemingly unavoidable nature of war and conflict. He is, moreover, deeply bereaved by the deaths of his wife and children - victims of violent events in the political turmoil of 1930s China that also robbed him of his sight.
As the film begins, we find him trying to retreat into a smaller, more controllable world by way of an ambition he has always secretly nurtured: to create here, in perhaps the world's most licentious, glittering and sordid port, the perfect bar. After countless hours spent critically examining dive after dive in the city's pleasure districts, Jackson has become a connoisseur of decadence. And one day, after a chance meeting with Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada) - a mysterious Japanese who appears to share Jackson's refined eye for the beauty of low-life establishments - Jackson gambles his savings on a horse, wins, and sets about realising his masterpiece: a bar that will achieve the exquisite balance of romance, tragedy and political tension.
He is assisted in his project by Matsuda. The fact that Matsuda is a decidedly shadowy figure fails to worry Jackson. And when rumours circulate that Matsuda has come to Shanghai to oversee a Japanese invasion of the city, Jackson still wilfully refuses to listen. He absorbs himself in perfecting his bar, determined to keep the larger world - and his deeper emotions - locked firmly outside.
Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson) is a White Russian Countess in her 30s who fled the Bolshevik Revolution as a child. Her immediate family have perished. She now lives in a Shanghai slum with members of her late husband's aristocratic family and her ten-year-old daughter, Katya (Madeleine Cooper). Sofia is the household's sole breadwinner, working as a taxi-dancer in dingy night spots, resorting to prostitution when times are hard. The rest of the household show their gratitude by endlessly ostracising her for bringing disgrace to the family.
Jackson encounters Sofia one night working at her taxi-dance hall, decides she is the perfect blend of tragedy and sensuality and asks her to become the centrepiece of his perfect bar. Thus begins a relationship that will see Jackson - despite his best efforts - slowly coaxed out of his enclosed world. He gradually comes to concede that Sofia may be more than a beautiful picture, becomes drawn to the spirited young Katya, and ultimately, into the intrigues within the family to separate Sofia from her child.
The story ends as the Japanese invade Shanghai, with the entire world on the brink of World War II. Ironically, it is at this point that Jackson, in acknowledging his love for Sofia and her daughter, finds reawakened his own idealism for a world free from war.
Theatrical propaganda posters
Target demographic movie keyword propaganda
- Film drama period Shanghai 1930s World War II politics romance taxi dance Russian nobility
Persons of interest
- Ralph Fiennes .... Todd Jackson
- Natasha Richardson .... Sofia Belinsky
- Vanessa Redgrave .... Sarah
- Lynn Redgrave .... Olga
- John Wood .... Uncle Peter
- Madeleine Potter .... Greshenka
- Allan Corduner .... Samuel
- Hiroyuki Sanada .... Matsuda
- Madeleine Cooper .... Katya
- Kyle Rothstein .... Dancing Harlequin
- Luoyong Wang .... Liu
- Aislín McGuckin .... Maria
- Lee Pace .... Tom Crane
- Da Ying .... Mr Gao
- Kazuo Ishiguro .... Screenwriter
- James Ivory .... Director
Cinematic intelligence sources
- The White Countess official movie site
- The White Countess film production notes
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Special Agent Matti
The White Countess is a slow drama about a slow man who is sinking into a morass of self-pity. The redeeming factor is that he finds a way out of the quagmire. Unfortunately, it's all about true love and self-sacrifice. Fortunately, everyone's so damaged that no matter what happens, there will always be tears until bedtime.
This film's greatest value is its unflinching historical perspective: Shanghai was a dynamic melting pot of royalty fallen on hard times, entrepreneurs accumulating vast fortunes, the world-weary, the world-hungry, criminals, diplomats, playboys, romantics, soldiers and whores. The White Countess is a good way to understand multiculturalism.
Security censorship classification
M (Infrequent moderate violence)
135 minutes (2:15 hours)
Not for public release in Australia before date
Film: 27 April 2006