Friday, March 21, 2008


Natasha Richardson, Ralph Fiennes, Lynn Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Hiroyuki Sanada, Madeleine Daly, Madeleine Potter

This movie adaptation of the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro was the last collaboration between Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. The same author of "The Remains of the Day" regales us with a story set in Shanghai in the 1930s. A thriving yet chaotic period before the Japanese army invades Shanghai. The main characters are from very different spectrum of society. But all equally conflicted, flawed and fascinating bunch of characters in their own right.

Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) is a blind American diplomat assigned in Shanghai. A troubled man prone to drinking in shady clubs. One day, he is 'saved' by a Russian countess, Sofia Belinskaya (Natasha Richardson) who has fallen on hard times. A single mother who also supports her aristocratic in laws by working as a bar girl in a dance bar/club. Jackson then decides to put up his own bar/club and calls it "the White Countess". He hired Sofia as the muse and the inspiration for his club. She acts as its hostess/receptionist. The diplomat and the Countess' relationship is pretty vague. They both try to keep it as professional as possible. Yet as the film progresses you can sense an underlying romantic factor developing between them. Set in such volatile times, Shanghai was a hotbed for a myriad of characters. You have the Communists, Taiwanese, foreign expats, diplomats as well as Japanese spies all mingling with each other. Jackson also strikes a deep friendship with a mysterious Japanese man named Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada from "The Last Samurai").

This love story takes some time to develop. In the first few sequences, we are introduced to the interesting mix of characters. James Ivory chose to reveal certain facts about the characters lives in installment. His technique was to use some flashbacks as well as in the dialogue of the film. The languages used were English, Chinese, French, some Russian and Japanese as well.
But the plot line itself is quite solid and flows effortlessly from one scene to another. It culminates in a gripping scene of intense action of people trying to escape as the invading Japanese army enters Shanghai.

The cast is a powerful ensemble of very talented British actors. Ralph Fiennes does well in his usual type of role - the anguished 'broken' man with a troubled past. His portrayal of the blind diplomat was forceful in a subtle way. Natasha Richardson was a luminous presence as the Countess Sofia. For a big woman she came across as quite sensual and feminine. They are ably supported by her own mother and her aunt, the indomitable Redgrave sisters, Vanessa and Lynn in small yet very relevant roles. Special mention goes to Hiroyuki Sanada as the mysterious Japanese spy Matsuda. He held his own against Ralph Fiennes in their scenes together. Their good repartee and healthy exchange of ideas gave the film some intellectual depth.

The White Countess is everything you would expect from a Merchant and Ivory production without the 'stuffy' factor. If you've seen their past movies, you'd know what I mean. It has well drawn characters, a solid plot and set in an era of uncertainty and despair. Yet despite and in spite of the tragedy, the film had depth and is very soulful, heartwarming rendition of the book.

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