Posted: 01/16/06

The White Countess (2005)
by Dianne Lawrence


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Set during 1936 in romantically seedy prewar Shanghai, The White Countess has the air of a Japanese fairytale.  Tragic characters negotiate their lives surrounded by the very loud ghosts of their past.  Written by the novelist and screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains Of The Day, An Artist Of The Floating World ) this is the last movie produced by the famous Ivory Merchant partnership. The director James Ivory lost his business partner and friend of 35 years, producer Ismail Merchant, when Merchant died in 2005.

Ralph Fiennes plays Todd Jackson, a blind, former diplomat who has achieved fame and respect on the international stage but during the course of his triumphs, he loses his wife, son, daughter and eyesight during the political upheavals. He battles shock and deep depression by retreating to the lure of alcohol and bohemian nightclubs, unconcerned by the disapproval of his upper crust social club.  His future is set when in one evening he meets the two people who will change the course of his life for better and worse. Mr. Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada) is a Japanese diplomat who, recognizing a kindred soul, sidles up to Todd in a noisy bar for some conversation. Soon they are hitting the night spots together and during the course of the evening Todd confides that his dream is to own the ideal Cabaret with a mix of artful performance, the perfect crowd and elegant but effective bouncers. He plans to bankroll his dream by placing all his money on a one horse bet. They end the evening in a taxi dancing bar where Todd meets the second door to his future, the Russian Countess Sofia, played with a flawless accent and perfect, down-at-the-heels, aristocratic elegance by Natasha Richardson.  It is through her character we discover the difference between true nobility of character and the propped up sense of entitlement her exiled family clings to.  Sofia has taken on the responsibility of supporting her royal family in their shabby apartment by taxi dancing and the occasional opportunity of necessary love.  Her insufferably stuffy relatives Aunt Sara (Vanessa Redgrave) and Olga (played with crisp snippy hauteur by Lynn Redgrave) are brought up short when Sofia’s young daughter (played with great spunk and charm by Madeline Potter) admonishes them for criticizing her mother.

She warns them that if it wasn’t for mom they’d be out working on the street and not making half the money.

After setting up the difficult circumstances of our down and out Prince and Princess, a bit of magical dust is sprinkled over the script. Todd bets the bank and wins on one horse at the races. He rescues Sofia by inviting her to be the Royal Presence in his bar, no dancing, no occasional moments of love just a Crown jewel for his perfect world. She gets to climb a few rungs up out of the basement life has thrown her and her family into. It’s a great business opportunity for both.

But the family wants out of the basement altogether and with some of Sofia’s money they secure papers and a passage to Hong Kong where surely they will find respect and opportunities through old acquaintances.  Mr. Matsuda reappears, bringing treachery in his wake and once again Todd and Sofia are swept into the tides of misfortune.  With one big difference.

Although the film has some fairly implausible coincidences and unlikely moments I found the fairytale-like quality of the storytelling and the beautiful acting of this stellar cast poignant and engaging.

Dianne Lawrence is our Los Angeles area staffer and a freelance artist. You can read more about Dianne and her art here.

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