Russian Countess Sofia Belinskya remembers old times of opulence and fancy dance parties, while she's living exiled in Shanghai, during the 1930s. Now, she has a poor life with her daughter Katya and her husband's family. The Countess works as a hostess and companion lady in a dance club, where she entertains all kinds of men, dancing with them and having a chat. There, she comes to know an American diplomat, Todd Jackson, a nice, kind man with whom she begins a friendship, despite the fact that Jackson is blind. Meanwhile, Jackson meets there a friendly Japanese diplomat, Matsuda, and they become friends. Years later, Jackson sets up a glamorous club, called "The White Countess", taking Sofia with him to work there as a companion lady. But Sofia doesn't want Katya to find out about her real work, protecting the girl from following in her foot steps in the future. Between Jackson and Sofia exists a special attraction, which could turn into love at any moment. But Jackson is being tortured by a traumatic event from the past, while Sofia is longing for leave the city. The Japanese invasion takes place and threatens their dreams and longings. Written by Alejandro Frias
Text Track 1 : SRT UTF-8 Plain Text English
Text Track 2 : IDX VobSub Simplified Chinese
Text Track 3 : IDX VobSub Traditional Chinese
Text Track 4 : IDX VobSub English
Text Track 5 : IDX VobSub French
Ralph Fiennes gazes inward, 13 November 2005 7/10
Author: kate_lee-movie from United States
I had an opportunity to see this movie at a screening. The White Countess is not scheduled to open in theaters until December, so it was a very early screening. I am saying this because I have a little bit of doubt that what I saw was the final cut.
Based on a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Saddest Music in the World, and the original novel for the movie, Remains of the Day), and featuring a magnificent cast (including Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave in addition to Fiennes and Richardson), this last Merchant-Ivory film (Ismail Merchant died this year) has bred a great expectation in movie lovers' hearts. I regret to say what I saw was not the best of Merchant-Ivory.
It is Shanghai in 1930s where all different sorts of Europeans and Americans established their ways of living inside the ancient Chinese city. The story is about an American middle-aged man who lives in a world inside his head, blind to the world around him. Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) is a former American diplomat who lost his vision. Yes, and yes—in both physical and psychological sense. He had buried his wife and a son after a house fire, and a few years after that, lost his only surviving child in a terrorist bombing incidence that also took away his sight. It is no surprise that the man is in a bitter despair. He becomes a man of lost faith. In his darkness, Jackson obstinately clings to and cultivates a rather esoteric ideal—creating a perfect nightclub. When Jackson meets Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson), a Russian Countess who is forced to work dishonorable jobs to support her dead husband's family and her daughter, he immediately sees in his head a perfect centerpiece for his dream club.
One thing that is extraordinary about this movie is the beautiful acting performance. Fiennes, often called the best internal actor of his generation, gives a stunningly exquisite performance as the blind man who resides in a world inside his mind—take just an example of the shadow of disappointment casting down on the lonely man's face when his new friend Matsuda bids him good night after a long night's conversation about nightclubs in Shanghai. It somehow makes cinematic sense that a person who cannot see other people's faces inadvertently reveals his soul with most minute movements of eyes and facial muscles. Although Fiennes' delicate features and willow physique do not quite conjure up the image of Humphrey Bogart to which the Jackson character curiously alludes, Fiennes makes a perfect bar owner in the style of Rick Blaine (Casablanca) meets Oscar Hopkins (played by Fiennes in Oscar and Lucinda).
Richardson wonderfully materializes "the perfect combination of the erotic and the tragic" and gives a heart-breaking performance as the aristocratic woman fallen to the reality of a horrid and abject life, and a mother who is going to do anything to save her child's future.
And so—here I am facing the unpleasant task of talking about the rest—it is pity that the director James Ivory lets these actors stand there bare and alone. Hardly any cinematic device is utilized to foreground the emotion or romance of this couple. The result is quite devastating. The romance sparkles moment by moment through the wonderful work of these two talented actors, but those moments do not connect well with each other, lost and found and lost again. Some scenes seem to need more editing work. For example, the horse race scene looks like a raw material from a daily—very awkward. For the lack of romantic fire, the screenplay is partly at fault in its meagerness. Although it contains an abundance of intriguing metaphors and keen observations on human lives, the screenplay does lack something—be it suave packaging of romance or absorbing dialog. But ultimately, I blame the director for not coming up with solutions to make the whole thing work better.
I normally love Ivory films. I don't know why this one did not work for me. Perhaps Ivory is not a man for romantic materials. Or perhaps the death of his partner, Merchant, took its toll on this film. In any case, if what I saw last night was the final version, Fiennes and Richardson might not be able to be rescued from this movie during this Oscar season.
Was the above comment useful to you?
a truly wonderful film, 29 December 2005 10/10
Author: Del Harvey from Chicago, Illinois
I was caught up in this film from the very beginning. For me, Richardson's performance is Oscar-worthy and Fiennes does a credible job as a recently blind diplomat doing his best to hide from the realities of the world by creating a world of his own. This film could be considered "Casablanca" turned on its head, where people of all different races and religions and beliefs come together at a nexus of great social turmoil, and the story of two small people doesn't amount a hill of beans to anyone but us, the audience. The White Countess is one of my favorite films of 2005. And I have to admit I'm not much of a Merchant-Ivory fan, but this one was truly exceptional.
Glimmers faintly perceptible, 22 March 2006 6/10
Author: Chris Docker (eyeforfilm) from Scotland, United Kingdom
The dreams of two unlikely strangers form the basis for this sophisticated drama – one of a world that has been lost and the other of a world that has yet to be found.
Snowflakes fall mysteriously in a grand ballroom somewhere in Russia, echoed in the mind of a beautiful girl in a slum district of Shanghai 1936. Natasha Richardson is a countess, fleeing the Bolshevik revolution, making a living any way she can to support her family. This means working in shady dance halls as a taxi-dancer (and presumably, occasionally, as a prostitute). Her five family members (all older except for a young daughter) loathe the shame she brings on them but have no other means of support.
Ralph Fiennes is a disillusioned US diplomat. He has helped the formation of the League of Nations, is a successful business man, and a hero Chinese nationalists, but has seen all the best efforts to have people live in peace come to nought. Shanghai is full of political tensions – just before the Sino-Japanese war. Fiennes finds solace drinking in lowlife bars and avoiding what he sees as the hypocrisy of those that hold him in such high regard.
A vast amount of talent has been poured into this film: it is the final collaboration of Merchant and Ivory (Ismael Merchant died shortly before final production), the screenplay is by the award winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (who worked with them on Remains of the Day), the other crew are top notch, and the cast also includes both Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave. Yet there is no easy conclusion when asking if it is a major triumph.
The film has a pervading sense of the unexplained, which continues for its whole length (over two hours), so piecing it together is not easy. The politics of the time and place are probably not familiar to most audiences, and the bewildering array of nationalities does not help. Ishiguru's talent is for transcending the material content and taking us into the world of ideas, but it needs most of our concentration to accept the material idea of Shanghai 1936 (which, although painstakingly recreated, often feels like a film set inhabited by a well-known English cast). Not surprisingly, there may be little energy left over for more cerebral imaginings. Fiennes is an American, Richardson and the Redgraves are Russian – even before we meet the Jewish neighbour, the French Consul, a Japanese nightlife connoisseur - and none of the main characters (or actors) are Chinese. But then the ideas are not particularly Chinese either – Shanghai is nothing more than Ishiguro's canvas.
Prising out the dreams gives us some clues. Richardson (Sofia) is no tart-with-a-heart. Their Jewish neighbour, also a refugee, has fled such horrors that mere verbal insults (the worst he has to suffer in Shanghai) fall off him like a deaf man. But Sofia's family are less self-assured. They dream of a decent existence, but Sofia has the greatest moral fibre, in spite of her job. She receives the respects of a Russian Prince – now working as a porter. She warns Fiennes (Jackson) – who is also blind – of a hidden danger and gains his lasting respect.
Jackson has noticed that in the dance halls there are no politics. He longs for a nightclub where people of any political persuasion can relax and mingle freely. Like Sofia, he is tarnished by all the rules of the real world, but his aspirations are higher than his outward lifestyle and the 'bigger picture' of those that would judge him.
Early in the film, Sofia says to a co-worker, "All of us here have to fall in love from time to time to feed our children," yet the film turns many ideas of 'love' on their head before it reaches its (thankfully) emotionally resounding climax. Equally ironically, Jackson speaks of the "vague promise of an intimate encounter" (in an ideal nightclub) when the reality is that merely the vague dream of any intimacy of feeling is the most either he or Sofia feel they could even hope for.
As a meditation on the commonality of death and sex, of the impotent struggle of goodness and taste against the wars that mankind seems addicted to, The White Countess has much to offer. The image of Fiennes in overcoat and bow-tie, calmly pouring brandy as the bombs fall around him, sticks in the mind like the scream of a child. Director James Ivory could have underscored such moments to much greater effect than allowing them to be swallowed in a complex story and an unfamiliar period of history. Fiennes' character seeks some political tension that stops short of violence, but his character – and the film – often lack that very quality.
What seems at first like instant noodles, badly re-heated, holds more sustenance than most will sadly give this film credit for; and if it is a triumph for the Merchant Ivory / Isuguro team, it is one, like its characters and their dreams, so heavily flawed that the aficionados who draw anything from it may well be accused of an over-active imagination.