THE WHITE COUNTESS —–“She is the countess Sofia Alexeyevna Belinskaya. She has everything that I wanted for this place. She has the allure, the tragedy, the weariness. She knows that history has no place for her kind anymore. She is perfect. My center piece.”
So muses ex-US diplomat ‘Todd Jackson’ (Ralph Fiennes) to a ‘Mr. Matsuda’ (Hiroyuki Sanada), a mysterious Japanese ‘businessman’ who has befriended him in the Shanghai, China of the late 1930s. The woman (Natasha Richardson) is a White Russian emigre, working as a taxi dancer/prostitute to provide the sole support to her family who fled Bolshevik Russia. Her relatives, proud if vanquished aristocrats, scorn her even as they rely on her sacrifice. Widowed and childless from bombings that left him blind, the scarred but sensitive Todd wants to open a nightclub that has elegance as its draw; the forlorn Sofia sees a way to make a better life for her daughter. Then the inquisitive Mr. Matsuda’s acquisitive country attacks China.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s genteel and polished screenplay was meticulously directed by James Ivory and handsomely produced by Ismail Merchant, with $16,000,000 expended shooting on carefully recreated locations in Shanghai. It was the last of the Merchant-Ivory productions, the fruitful 40-year partnership closing as Merchant passed away before shooting was finished. While the movie received tepid reviews and was a failure at the box-office, from this corner we call this romantic period piece a fine, felt and definitely underrated drama,a good one to go out on.
We fully believe in the characters inhabited by the soulful Fiennes and a radiant Richardson, as well as those essayed by Richardson’s mother real-life Vanessa Redgrave and aunt Lynn Redgrave (being really rotten). Also in the cast are Madeleine Potter, Madeleine Daly (playing Richardson’s daughter, in life she is Ms. Potter’s daughter, who plays her jealous aunt), Lee Pace, Allan Corduner and John Wood.
Box-office was a sad $4,092,682, worldwide. 135 minutes that unfolds in a measured pace, allowing the atmosphere of abandon and apprehension to envelope you in the fragile hopes and recurring plight of the lost and stricken souls so subtly and graciously portrayed.