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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