White Countess (2005) – movie review

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Movie Review by Susan Hodgetts

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave

Director: James Ivory

Quite a lot is expected of a Merchant Ivory production, perhaps too much. Sadly this also marks legendary producer Ismail Merchant’s last film as he died unexpectedly soon after shooting ended. But their collaboration with Kazuo Ishiguro, one of the lauded writers of the moment (his current novel ‘Never Let Me Go’ is highly acclaimed) doesn’t seem to have brought out the best in either party.

Set in Shanghai in 1936-37 on the brink of the Japanese invasion, Fiennes plays blind former diplomat Todd Jackson, an American haunted by a tragic past and only able to temporarily escape it by wondering around the nightclubs of Shanghai. Richardson plays former Russian countess Sofia, whose family have fallen on very hard times after being thrown out of newly Bolshevik Russia. Widow Sofia is the only one able to earn any money to support her elderly aunt and uncle, 10 year-old daughter Katya and her meddling mother-in-law and sister-in-law. Although she is keeping them alive, her disdainful family don’t approve of her work in the bars and clubs of Shanghai. After the Countess protects blind Jackson from the preying eye of potential muggers, Jackson knows that she is the one to help him realise his dream – he wants to own his own club in Shanghai, The White Countess, with her as the centre piece.

As Jackson brings his dream together, world events and Sofia’s family threaten to separate the bond that the pair have forged.

Despite the impressively innovative direction, this film is still laden with unsubtle symbolism and crummy dialogue. (At one point Sofia says to Jackson “But you don’t even know what I look like. Don’t you want to touch my face? Isn’t that what blind people do?”) There’s nothing wrong with the performances, Fiennes does what he does best and Richardson is fine, but somehow the characters still felt somewhat unengaging. It feels a tad formulaic and to be honest it’s rather boring. Not a terrible film but just not as inspiring as it should be.

3 out of 6 stars