Our Rating: 4 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Merchant Ivory Productions has a history of making "artsy" costume dramas. Some of them are exceptional, others lack vision and purpose. The White Countess is an obscure glimpse into a story that does not hasten toward its conclusion, but approaches it with quiet dignity. Some might find it dull, others sober but inspiring as it grants us a glimpse into a bygone era.
Shanghai after the first world war became a thriving place of business, with all the races of the world convening in one place. Displaced Russians, outcast Japanese, and American tycoons crowded into its narrow streets with hopeful ambitions for the future. Among the disgraced socialites forced to live in poverty is Countess Sofia Belinskya (Natasha Richardson), whose good looks and natural graces force her to become the major bread earner for her family. Her older sister is somewhat resentful of Sofia's lifestyle, which includes being paid by moderate local establishments to mix with the bar crowd and occasionally fulfill men's fancies. Her attempts to isolate Sofia from her daughter, who idolizes her and intends to become just like her when she grows up, drive a wedge into an already crumbling family relationship. Some have visions of returning to grandeur (Vanessa Redgrave) while others are resigned to their fate.
Recently blinded in the explosion that took the life of his daughter only months after the unfortunate death of his wife and son, Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) is seeking for purpose in life. He has the perfect image of what he wants in his head, that of a classy upper-crust establishment where the finest political, dramatic, and artsy minds of Shanghai will convene in glorious splendor. Making it a point to visit every bar in the district, Todd incidentally comes across Sofia, who prevents him from becoming the mark of several ambitious bouncers (paid troublemakers). Captivated by her voice and the romanticism of her former lifestyle, Todd applies to her to become the main fixture at The White Countess, little suspecting that the city will be soon shaken to its foundations by political strife.
The film has a natural charm about it but at times moves rather slowly. The characters are interesting and grant us mere glimpses into the various lives that came to Shanghai in hopes of getting the financial boost needed to re-enter society in Hong Kong during the 1930's. One rapidly feels the despair and unhappiness of Russian aristocrats fallen from grace and forced to sleep in shifts due to the limited size of the apartment. Then there is the Jewish neighbor downstairs whose kindness is surpassed only by general dislike of him due to his race. Todd's back history unfolds in obscure fashion without ever giving us intimate details, but by the conclusion we are relieved and glad to have known the people involved. The performances are lovely, and the art direction is just beautiful. One thing James Ivory does well is cast a mood, and this one lingers long after the film has ended. It felt to me as though it must have been a marvelous book, but the format did not fit films well. There's more emotion than excitement, and thus it will not be everyone's cup of tea.
Surprisingly, there is no real complications to frighten away potential audiences. The biggest problem is the mild overtones that imply Sofia is a prostitute. She doesn't like doing it, but occasionally must earn money and is forced into it to keep her family fed. We never observe any of her clients, and for the most part, Todd's employment keeps her off the street. Her family is ashamed of her, and treats her badly, but continue to profit off her lifestyle. There are several explosions with mildly bloody results in a series of flashbacks, and it's implied a fire kills the occupants of a town house. A handful of mild profanities accompany the dialogue. It's a quiet kind of film that might bore some audiences, but enthrall others.