Only one Chinese city has managed to seduce Westerners so successfully and it is Shanghai.
In the 1930s, the sprawling city was a jumble of expatriates. Jews were fleeing Hitler’s Third Reich and Russian aristocrats turned up after being turfed out of their country houses by the communists.
American and English businessmen were making money hand over fist. What perfect territory for American James Ivory and Indian Ismail Merchant, who love to explore how the dislocated live.
This is the second collaboration between Merchant Ivory and Japanese-born novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (after The Remains Of The Day).
Ishiguro, who was raised in England, had strong family connections with Shanghai during the 1930s. His grandfather had businesses in Shanghai and his father recounted many stories of his childhood in the Paris of the East.
Indeed the first half of The White Countess‘s overly leisurely 135 minutes is devoted to recreating the hedonistic mood of Shanghai in 1936 and 1937 when the air was thick with the very real threat of both communist revolution and Japanese invasion.
There’s too much atmosphere perhaps at the expense of action, although production designer Andrew Sanders’s recreated Old Shanghai is beautifully lensed by Australia Chris Doyle.
The White Countess is a popular nightclub opened by a drunken former English diplomat.
Blinded in tragic circumstances, Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) is hell bent on escaping reality by running the perfect nightclub, one with the right proportion of cosmopolitan sexuality, melancholy and political intrigue. Russian ?gr?Sofia, played by Natasha Richardson, becomes his muse after a chance encounter.
Fiennes is rather unnerving as the blind Jackson, a man adept at keeping his head out of politics. He is unaware of the Japanese threat, despite a growing friendship with the mysterious Japanese powerbroker.
Richardson complained that acting to a seemingly sightless Fiennes left her feeling somewhat lonely. She herself is superb as the countess ousted from Russia by the Communists.
With more than a touch of Cinderella and the ugly sisters, Sofia is reduced to working as a nightclub hostess and sometime prostitute to support her small daughter, Katya, and aristocratic extended family (who live in ever-complaining poverty).
But when Jackson employs her at his lush establishment, a light goes on again for the aristocrat and a connection between the two grows. Hello, prince.
The White Countess is something of a dynastic film. It also stars Richardson’s famous mother, Vanessa Redgrave, who plays her kindly aunt Princess Sara. Richardson’s aunt Lynn Redgrave plays her not so kind mother-in-law who betrays the family’s sole breadwinner.
Madeleine Porter is Greshenka, the sour sister-in-law who tries to supplant Sofia as Katya’s mother when Japanese bombs are falling on Shanghai.
Producer Ismail Merchant never saw the final cut of The White Countess. He and director Ivory worked together for almost 45 years on over 30 films as varied as Slaves Of New York, A Room With A View and Le Divorce.
Their partnership was recorded in The Guinness Book Of World Records for its longevity. But this was to be their final film. Merchant passed away after a short illness in May last year, while the film was in post-production.