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
The White Countess achieves the "perfect balance of romance and tragedy." It is the story of two broken souls who each end up being the remedy to the other's fall from grace. While this description may not point to anything extraordinary on its own, Natasha Richardson (Countess Sophia Belinsky) and Ralph Fiennes (Todd Jackson) dazzle us with outstanding performances in this final Merchant-Ivory film. Superb acting, complex characters, and visually stunning sets make for a realistic, timeless five-star drama.
Ralph Fiennes plays the role of Todd Jackson, a disillusioned American ex-diplomat. The loss of his family and vision to Chinese-Japanese political turmoil destroy his hopes and prospects for the world. The disappointment in the stagnant progress of the League of Nations drives Jackson away from the desperate political scene, and he attempts to shut out all reminders of an uncontrollable painful world. He goes on spending his time frequenting Shanghai's classiest bars, surrounding himself in luxury and warmth. He finds friendship in a Japanese man named Matsuda who shares his dreams to create the perfect bar. People warn Jackson that Matsuda is a feared political revolutionary; however, this has no impact on their relationshipJackson has completely shut the doors to the outside world. Fiennes expertly sticks to his character delivering the heavy, demanding lines with eloquence while appearing to be truly blind.
In his quest to create this perfect bar he runs into Countess Sophia Belinsky a Russian Aristocrat who has fled to Shanghai escape the Bolshevik Revolution. She is living with her late husband's family and her daughter, Katya. She single-handedly supports them by prostituting herself despite their assailment and complete lack of gratitude. Jackson finds in her the perfect balance of romance and tragedy and asks her to be the centerpiece of his bar and names it of her. Natasha Richardson emanates a deep sadness and longing for a once beautiful world and lets the audience feel what Jackson finds in Countess Sophia.
The two of them succeed in creating their own controllable world. With the right music, the right crowd, and a sense of political tension, Jackson feels he has made his dream come true. However, at the end of the night, Countess Sophia must return to the slums and the outside world with all its troubles and other unpredictable variables. As Jackson's relationship with Sophia develops, he begins to realize the impracticality of his "heavy doors". This accompanied with Matsuda's luring of a "broader canvas" slowly cause Jackson to emerge from his shell. At the end of the film, Jackson and Sophia return to the outside world together with a new hope found in one another.
The themes of isolation and alienation are rampant in this film and occur on many levels. Sophia is shut off from her family and eventually abandoned because of her disgraceful job. Jackson is blind physically and mentally from the real world. They are strangers in a foreign country, a country whose sole foreign policy for the past several centuries has been isolationism (they built a wall to keep people out). These instances are not simply strewn about but are intricately woven into the plot to create a deeper, more meaningful story.
The White Countess explores devastation and new hope, heartbreak and new love, and shows us the hopelessness of walls and cages. We can always close our eyes but that doesn't mean everything around us will disappear.
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