Set in 1930s Shanghai, where a blind American diplomat develops a curious relationship with a young Russian refugee who works odd -- and sometimes illicit -- jobs to support members of her dead husband's aristocratic family.
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Shanghai. 1936. Crossroads of the world and into this city of political intrigue comes Sofia, a Russian Countess who, with the remains of her family, has been left stateless by the Revolution. Forced by her reduced circumstances to support herself and her family as a bar-girl and taxi dancer, Sofia forms a relationship with Jackson, a blind former diplomat who opens an elegant bar; The White Countess. Their curious relationship matures but they are caught up in the fall of the city to the Japanese invaders. Written by
It is Shangai sometime before WWII. Ralph Fiennes is a blind American, Jackson, who was once a diplomat, but is now, from what little the movie will reveal to us, a consultant to an American business, known only as "the Company." It becomes quickly obvious that he is jaded and disillusioned, and becoming a nuisance to his firm, as he sleeps through meetings, drinks too much, and is plainly irascible.
Natasha Richardson plays a Russian woman, Sofia, who lives with a family that has fallen on bad times, in a cramped apartment. At night she dresses up and goes to a nightclub, where she makes her living as an up scale B girl. She has a daughter, but the rest of the family seems to want to keep them apart, as if the mother is tainted. We slowly pick up that they view her job with distaste and, while living solely off her earnings, want to keep themselves and her daughter away from any of the embarrassment of her job rubbing off on them. The sister in law seems especially possessive of the child, possibly because he reminds her of her dead brother. To all of this Sofia is strangely passive.
We then find out that the family is an aristocratic family, forced to leave Russia, trying to get to Hong Kong, where presumably the British and other Russian ex-patriots will welcome them for what they were, and not for what they have become. Natasha is a countess, of the group that were known as white Russians: those who opposed the communists.
Fiennes finds out her secret and is intrigued. He has a dream: to open a special nightclub where Natasha can hold court as a hostess. He puts all of his money on a horse race and wins and opens the club.
The relationship between the two is proper and, at Fiennes insistence, distant. He makes it clear he wants to know nothing of her private life, and wishes to share none of his own. He is not only physically blind but wants to turn his back on the realities of the world, hoping to create the world of his choosing - inside his own head. With a mysterious Japanese mentor he creates the world that is outside his club inside it, by filling it with people of the same diversity as are about to clash on the outside. He picks his women like an aficionado, his bouncers like a coach, his musicians according to his own esoteric tastes.
As a World war is looming we know his private dream world will be shattered. Will the couple's relationship bloom before it is too late? The catalyst is the daughter who, as a child, sees straight to the heart of the matter. If her mother's boss is "so nice," why does she ignore him in public? But neither is willing to let go of the past that haunts them, and so they allow the child to slowly entangle them.
Then the Japanese attack, and the Countess's family decides to skip to Hong Kong on a boat, with the $300 that they have pressured her to get from Fiennes. They don't care what she has to do to get it, and they'll look down on her for doing it anyway, but they'll be safe. Then the real perfidy of her mother-in-laws intent becomes clear. The countess has to stay behind, because, if they are to get back into society, she would be a mill stone around their necks. Worse they will take her daughter with them.
Ralph Fiennes is the American, whose guilt has shattered him. The two Redgrave sisters (Vanessa and Lynn) do excellent work at creating a dysfunctional, morally vapid, family, that Natasha (Vanessas daughter) cow tows too. It's nice to see Liam Neeson's wife back in acting, as she really is the center piece of the movie. The movie's pace is slow, and nuance is everything. Both main characters are such that I wanted to shake them, but then that is the point: passivity and guilt have crippled them. The film was actually filmed in Shangai, one of the pluses of the end of the cold war. A cast of thousands who don't have to be paid scale.
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