The White Countess (7/10)
by Tony Medley
This is not for everybody.
Highlighted by an exceptional performance by Ralph Fiennes, who plays
Jackson, the blind protagonist, and an equally compelling performance by
Natasha Richardson, as the sweet Russian expatriate Countess Sofia, this
is a slow, very slow, glimpse of the world in Shanghai, circa 1936-7, just
before the outbreak of World War II.
There are a lot of the usual
suspects here. Fiennes was the star of “The English Patient,”(1996), a
film that, in the minds of some, defines slow. Merchant Ivory, who
produced, specializes in films that move glacially (“Remains of the Day,”
1993). I really struggled through the first 75 minutes, but am glad I
stuck it out because it all comes together and the last hour or so is
worth the wait.
As the film opens, Jackson is a
member of some sort of company’s board of directors, but he’s not happy
and neither are his fellow directors. Jackson sleeps through a Board
meeting and then is helped out by a younger director, who accompanies him
to a bar Jackson likes. When the younger director observes that it is a
louche place, he says someone like Jackson doesn’t belong there. Jackson
disregards him, stays, meets the dignified, alluring Countess Sofia, who
is of Russian royalty. As a refugee, she is working there as a B-Girl to
support her family, her daughter, mother, and aunts, who include the
Redgrave sisters, Vanessa and Lynn.
Even though her family eagerly
takes her money, they demean and disrespect her because of what she is
forced to do to support them. She bears it all stoically.
Jackson starts his own bar,
sort of like Rick’s, which, as everyone knows, Humphrey Bogart would start
four years later in Casablanca. Unfortunately, Jackson’s friends don’t
include Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Claude Raines.
The weakest part of the film is
Jackson’s befriending of a shadowy Japanese, Matsuda. Matsuda is there as
a precursor to a Japanese take over of Shanghai. But he is pictured as
compassionate with feelings for Jackson. What the Japanese did in China
was brutal and inhuman, and the way they treated prisoners and people of
other races was barbaric. Considering the Japanese treatment of their
captives and opponents in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the idea that a Japanese war
leader with the compassion Matsuda is pictured as possessing could have
existed is a perversion of history.
Predictably, Jackson has the
hots for Countess Sofia, and that’s what drives him. This is a film that
requires patience as it wends its way.
December 16, 2005