THE WHITE COUNTESS

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            The gift of Merchant/Ivory films is a journey to another world.  The two men nearly always extend a luscious visual invitation to an unexpected time and place.  Even if the film is flawed, and this one meanders, few people do a better job of transporting an audience.  “The White Countess” is gorgeous to look at.  It springs from the romantic and mysterious time in 1936 Shanghai just before and right in the path of the war between China and Japan .  .

            If I have never been to Rick’s Café in Casablanca or to Mr. Jackson’s perfect bar, The White Countess in Shanghai , don’t bother to remind me.  Director Michael Curtiz took me to Rick’s, and James Ivory takes me to The White Countess.  Both are indelible.

Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), a blind American diplomat, often called by his contemporaries “the last best hope of the League of Nations,” finally realizes his dream:  a bar that is a nest of disillusioned exiles like himself, passers through, travelers – and soon Japanese military officers.  It is a place for whispered plans, international conversations, and recreation.

            Mr. Jackson has met and hired as his centerpiece an exiled Russian countess who has been supporting her family by plying her trade as a high class dancer/prostitute.  She is Sofia (Natasha Richardson), and with her regal posture and abundant brainpower, she holds both the bar and the movie together.  She takes her earnings home to Aunt Sara (Vanessa Redgrave) and mother-in-law Olga (Lynn Redgrave) -  colorless exiles who accept Sofia as their meal ticket while insulting her for the way she makes the money.   Sofia ’s spirited daughter Katya (Madeleine Daly) is at the center of this otherwise lifeless household.       

            As the Japanese approach Shanghai , the nature of the club will change along with the lives of everyone connected with it.  The arrival of the Japanese and the outside world war are too much to cover in this particular movie where so much effort has gone to building atmosphere.  It is sudden and jarring – as of course, war must be, but it might have worked better if Merchant and Ivory had had kept it off stage.

            Ralph Fiennes is his perfectly polished self, this time in an unrelieved dark mood that barely changes after Sofia helps him realize the dream of his club.  Somehow, it is fitting.  The former ambassador and the former countess, whose royal bearing is as much a part of her as her soul, meet and conspire to make life work in the toughest of circumstances. 

            The test, I suppose, of this movie is that several months after seeing it as the centerpiece of the Two River Film Festival, this couple, their club, and the atmosphere of pre-war Shanghai linger in much the same way as Rick and Ilsa and the café are still alive 50 years after they appeared on the screen.  This is Merchant/Ivory’s achievement – the palpable atmosphere of a time and place.

 


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