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
Greetings again from the darkness. One can always count on a Merchant/Ivory film to appear soft and flowing on the outside and explosive on the inside with a pinch of unrequited love on the side. The misleading smile on Ralph Fiennes face and the gentleness of Natasha Richardson mask the inner turmoil only to themselves.
Fiennes plays Todd Jackson, an infamous former U.S. diplomat who worked wonders with the Chinese government. Sadly his life took an awful turn when he was blinded and his daughter killed during a tram bombing. His life a mess, Jackson "sees" his idea for an entertainment establishment in his head. Once he has secured the funding, he selects his "centerpiece" ... former Russian Countess Sophie (Richardson). Their business relationship is highly successful but does nothing to help Richardson's torturous family situation. Watching their worlds collide, with an assist from warring nations is a slow and painful ride.
Richardson is simply terrific and elegant as Sophie. Her scenes with Fiennes and her scenes with her family are magnificent and powerful. The only thing preventing the film from being truly top notch is the over-reliance on subtlety in the Fiennes/Richardson relationship.
Outstanding support work is provided by Hiroyoki Sanada as the mysterious Mr. Matsuda, but the real treat for film lovers is the opportunity to see Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave together on screen. As is customary for Merchant/Ivory, the direction is a bit heavy-handed and dialog extremely limiting, but the strong performances allow the film to be very solid and watchable.
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