A fallen countess and a disillusioned diplomat turn their backs on history
Todd Jackson (played by Ralph Fiennes with an American accent he seems to have borrowed from Groucho Marx) has seen enough to turn a Gorgon blind. At the Conference of Versailles following World War I, he watched his vision for universal peace sabotaged by partisan bickering. Later, a terrorist bomb planted on a tram killed his daughter and left him sightless. With winnings from the racetrack, Jackson creates “the bar of my dreams,” an elegant redoubt from the shabby world outside. He calls his classy nightclub The White Countess, in tribute to a Russian expatriate he invites to be its hostess. Countess Sofia Belinsky is grateful for his offer. Accustomed to privilege and luxury before the Bolsheviks seized power, the splendid Countess is now forced to support her fatherless daughter, her aunt, her uncle, and her sister-in-law, as a dance-hall pickup.
|Natasha Richardson stars as the White Countess, who lends her moniker to Ralph Fiennes’ Shanghai saloon in the movie of the same name.|
In Howards End, The Golden Bowl, A Room with a View, and other films, director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant created exquisite gems that, like Jackson’s nightclub, stand apart from the ambient coarseness. Because of Merchant’s death last year, The White Countess is their final collaboration. It is set in 1936 in Shanghai, a perilous Asian frontier town that is seething with tension between Communists and the Kuomintang and on which Tsarist émigrés, Jewish refugees, American businessmen, and Japanese imperialists have converged.
The White Countess
Dir. James Ivory; writ. Kazuo Ishiguro; feat. Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Lynn Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave (PG-13)
Shanghai is also the setting for When We Were Orphans, a 2000 novel of blinkered awareness about a master detective who believes he possesses the talent to rid the world of crime. Its author, Kazuo Ishiguro, wrote the original screenplay for The White Countess, and it is another exercise in his persistent theme of willful ignorance. In Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Stevens, the repressed butler, is kin to the blind American idealist, Jackson, in his obliviousness to global and personal catastrophe. And in An Artist of the Floating World, the artist Masuji Ono shares with Jackson the naive conviction that the cultivation of beauty can insulate him from history.
Jackson, trying to lock the world out of the noctural utopia he creates within the walls of a cabaret, makes a pact with his countess not to exchange any personal information. It is a pact that, like Jackson’s heart, has to be broken. “You need a balance between the tragic and the erotic,” says Jackson, describing the bar of his dreams to a Japanese friend. It is a delicate balance, for a film as much as for a bar, and, even if the proprietor of The White Countess were not so blatantly, physically blind, we know from the outset that the course of history will dispel Jackson’s beautiful vision.
Like the nightclub of the same name, The White Countess offers generous carafes of Weltschmerz, the delicious sensation of wallowing for a while in lovely sorrow. “All there is now is chaos,” proclaims Jackson with the elation of disillusionment. Vivid in the chaos is the Belinsky clan, played with panache by members of the Redgrave clan: Vanessa (as Aunt Sara), Lynn (as sister-in-law Olga), and Natasha Richardson (as Sofia Belinsky). Though fallen and impoverished, Aunt Sara insists on their elevated status. Warned that no diplomat will condescend to acknowledge her, the ancient aristocrat, like some figure out of Chekhov, stubbornly repeats: “I will go to the consulate.” After dressing up in faded finery, she does. •