The White Countess (2005)

reviewed by
Steve Rhodes

A film review by Steve Rhodes
Copyright 2006 Steve Rhodes
RATING (0 TO ****):  **

THE WHITE COUNTESS is a slow melodrama about a family of Russian aristocrats reduced to poverty and now sleeping three to a bed in Shanghai in 1936. This Merchant Ivory costume drama is heavy on the costumes but light on the drama. Every single set in this painstakingly accurate production looks completely authentic, but the story itself never rings true.

Ralph Fiennes plays the least believable of a group of unbelievable characters, an American ex-diplomat named Todd Jackson. He is said to have been "the last hope of the League of Nations." Mr. Jackson, as he is always called, is a blind man who is usually drunk. When he gambles most of his money on a single horse race, he wins enough money to build "the bar of his dreams."

The "centerpiece" of Mr. Jackson's bar is to be his newfound friend, Countess Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson). We are told that she is but one of many such Russian countesses living a hardscrabble existence in Shanghai. Sofia's family is so poor that she can't get a bed to sleep in until morning. Currently working as a "hostess" in another bar, she is eager to switch to Mr. Jackson's new establishment, since her increased salary there means that she won't have to entertain "clients" outside of work. Although Mr. Jackson opines to a friend of his that the best bars have hostesses which are a mixture of the erotic and the tragic, he appears to have concentrated his recruiting efforts exclusively on the latter.

A story that never seems to be going anywhere, it ends, as one could easily predict, with the arrival of Japanese troops, who take over the city. If you do go see the film, I'd advise you to heavily caffeinate yourself before entering the theater.

THE WHITE COUNTESS runs a needlessly long 2:18. The film is in English and in French with English subtitles. It is rated PG-13 for "some violent images and thematic elements" and would be acceptable for kids around 8 and up.

The film opens nationwide in the United States on Friday, January 13, 2006. In the Silicon Valley, it will be showing at the Camera Cinemas.



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