The last movie in the collaboration between Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, this is a beautifully photographed and touching story. The tale, written by Kazuo Ishiguro, is set in Shanghai before and during the Japanese invasion in 1937. The terror of that time has been depicted elsewhere, and far more graphically like in Empire of the Sun set mainly a few years later, but I like the way it was used as a backdrop for this strange love story. An expensive but gorgeous setting.
Todd Jackson, played impressively by Ralph Fiennes, is a former diplomat who lost his sight and his daughter in a horrific bombing. He has given up on his brilliant career and remains a hollow but civil and gentle man. The only thing he cares for is creating an elusive dream of his: perfection in a bar/nightclub. He lays down his savings on a horse race and wins so he can suddenly realize and finance his longing. Jackson handpicks everything and everyone for his bar from his centerpiece, Countess Sofia Belinskya, to the bouncers, bartenders, musicians, performers and others. Sofia was forced out of Russia after the revolution. She is so important to his ‘idea’ of the perfect bar that he names the bar after her: The White Countess. And yet he makes a deal that they have nothing to do with each other outside of business times.
She appeals to him because, even though he is blind, he picks up on her style, beauty and, most of all, an air of the tragic.
Sofia, played wonderfully by Natasha Richardson, is earning the money with which her extended family and daughter are living by selling herself as a dancing partner and possibly through other favours. But her family, except her daughter, shun her for descending to this. With everyone desperate about a looming Japanese invasion she tells Jackson about her family’s need of money so they can escape. He gives her the money but the rest of the family do not want her to go with her. It seems bizarre to us, comfortable on this side of the 20th century, but it smacks strongly of Russian pride to me. So they leave her behind to come on later even though the Japanese are invading and there will probably be no ‘later’.
In the end Jackson’s dream was an ephemeral thing. Beautiful, perhaps, but not satisfying. And, ironically, a Japanese gentleman who is responsible for the invasion gives him the nudge he needs to realize that his real goal is not the White Countess bar but Sofia, the real thing.
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