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 d... Read allSet 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.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.
Shanghai, 1936. While the disruptions in global existence created by World War I have created fearful evacuees of many countries to the old city of Shanghai, those émigrés survive by any means possible. Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) is an American diplomat who lost his wife, daughter, and eyesight in an accident and lives his blind existence visiting the music bars for solace. His dream is to own a music/dance/entertainment club and his fortune is changed by winning at horse racing. He encounters Countess Sofia Belinskya (Natasha Richardson), a woman of Russian royalty who has fled Russia with the fall of the Czars with her daughter Katya (Madeleine Daly), and her aunts Princess Vera Belinskya (Vanessa Redgrave) and Olga Belinskya (Lynn Redgrave) and Greshenka (Madeleine Potter) who live in a tiny loathsome apartment and are dependent entirely upon Sofia's income as a dance hostess in a seedy club. In their building lives Mr. Feinstein (Allan Corduner) and his Jewish family who likewise have sought asylum in Shanghai and who proffers kindness to Sofia's plight.
Jackson's winnings afford him the luxury of opening 'The White Countess' club at the encouragement of his Japanese friend Mr. Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada) and realizing Sofia's dignity and needs, Jackson makes Sofia the sophisticated hostess of his club. The dance of pre-World War II grows from a distant echo into a reality with the insidious growth in numbers of Japanese soldiers and soon the truth of the Japanese imperialism intentions becomes evident. The émigrés begin to escape Shanghai and in the midst of Sofia's family's escape to Hong Kong her aunts make it known that Sofia must stay in Shanghai: her work as a dance hall hostess would smear their reputation as they return to a position of royalty! Jackson and Feinstein intervene to prevent Sofia's loss of her daughter and the slowly evolving relationship between Jackson and Sofia is clarified.
There is plenty of plot for the active mind in this story, and in the style of Merchant Ivory productions the story unfolds gradually, layer upon layer, in a study of atmosphere embroidered by words. The setting is stunningly beautiful to see, and the unfolding of the story is as painfully slow as the life of displaced people in a foreign city can be. Times change, moods alter, events metamorphose and at the end of the film the events of the story are well braided. Natasha Richardson is radiant as Sofia, a woman of style who graciously does what it takes to survive. The Redgrave sisters exude the embarrassment of being bereft of their regal breeding in the squalor of Shanghai. Fiennes is a broken man with so much pride that he fears vulnerability. Sanada embodies the elegance and grace with which the Japanese adroitly usurped China into their Great Plan.
Yes, the film could use some editing, but one can understand why editor John David Allen would have had difficulty in cutting the beauty of the cinematography of Christopher Doyle and Yiu-Fai Lai capturing the costumes of John Bright and the sets of Andrew Sanders and Qi Bian. This film is more an atmosphere than story and requires the viewer to submit to the manner of relating the tale. But in the end it is a beautiful work and sadly the last of a series of great films by an incomparable team. Grady Harp
- May 17, 2006