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
If there ever was a film with the right elements in it, this was it. After all, James Ivory was directing and the screen play by Kazuo Ishiguro, who had worked with the director before, to much better results in "The Remains of the Day". Alas, this film has a flat feeling, in sharp contrast with the other films by Mr. Ivory.
We are taken to the Shanghai of the thirties which was a city with a large international community. Among them, the story finds the impoverished Russian aristocrats that are living in need. Horror of horrors, Countess Sofia is forced to work in a dive, often frequented by low life characters. Although it's left to our imagination, could this poor aristocrat be also one of "those women"?
It is there where Todd Jackson, a blind American with a lot of influence in the right circles, meets Sofia and decides to ask her to be the hostess for the new night club he wants to start. Into this picture walks a Japanese business man, Mr. Matsuda, who befriends Jackson. Matsuda has a hidden agenda, as he wants to mix different groups of opposing sides at night spot.
The Japanese invasion puts an end to Jackson's dreams. At the same time, Sofia is able to get the needed amount of money for she and the family to go to Hong Kong. The only problem is that Olga, the family matriarch has another idea in mind: Sofia must stay behind! The problem with the film is that there is not enough tension, or passion, in these people on the screen. In a way, this movie doesn't convince us these characters are real.
The mostly English cast does what it can, but they have done much better before. The magnificent Vanessa Redgrave has nothing to do, which is the ultimate sin of the movie. Ralph Fiennes' Jackson is not one of the best roles he's ever played. For that matter, Natasha Richardson, with the phony Russian accent, doesn't add anything to the story.
In a way, the movie feels empty. We can't even imagine an Ivory-Merchant production this shabby before. Maybe the problem lies with the untimely death of Mr. Merchant. The film needed some editing and trimming because with a running time of 138 minutes, is just too long.
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