The White Countess



Set in Shanghai in the late 1930s, this is the story of the relationship between a disillusioned former US diplomat and a refugee White Russian countess reduced to a sordid life in the city's bars.

Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), once an American diplomat filled with idealism, has lost his sight several years earlier, and is now languishing in Shanghai's grand hotels and elite gentlemen's clubs, a burnt-out case, He has become bitterly disillusioned by realpolitik and the seemingly unavoidable nature of war and conflict. He is, moreover, deeply bereaved by the deaths of his wife and children - victims of violent events in the political turmoil of 1930s China that also robbed him of his sight.

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Vera (Vanessa Redgrave) and Olga (Lynn Redgrave) in Shanghai

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As the film begins, we find him trying to retreat into a smaller, more controllable world by way of an ambition he has always secretly nurtured: to create here, in perhaps the world's most licentious, glittering and sordid port, the perfect bar. After countless hours spent critically examining dive after dive in the city's pleasure districts, Jackson has become a connoisseur of decadence. And one day, after a chance meeting with Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada) - a mysterious Japanese who appears to share Jackson's refined eye for the beauty of low-life establishments - Jackson gambles his savings on a horse, wins, and sets about realizing his masterpiece: a bar that will achieve the exquisite balance of romance, tragedy, and political tension.
He is assisted in his project by Matsuda. The fact that Matsuda is a decidedly shadowy figure fails to worry Jackson. And when rumors circulate that Matsuda has come to Shanghai to oversee a Japanese invasion of the city, Jackson still willfully refuses to listen. He absorbs himself in perfecting his bar, determined to keep the larger world - and his deeper emotions - locked firmly outside.

Sofia (Natasha Richardson) is a White Russian countess in her thirties who fled the Bolshevik Revolution as a child. Her immediate family have perished. She now lives in a Shanghai slum with members of her late husband's aristocratic family, including Olga (Lynn Redgrave), Sarah (Vanessa Redgrave) and Sofia's ten-year-old daughter, Katya (Madeleine Cooper). Sofia is the household's sole breadwinner, working as a taxi-dancer in dingy night spots, resorting to prostitution when times are hard. The rest of the household show their gratitude by endlessly ostracizing her for bringing disgrace to the family.

Olga (Lynn Redgrave)

Vanessa Redgrave on set in Shanghai
Photo by Lynn Redgrave

Jackson encounters Sofia one night working at her taxi-dance hall, decides she is the perfect blend of tragedy and sensuality and asks her to become the centerpiece of his perfect bar. Thus begins a relationship that will see Jackson - despite his best efforts - slowly coaxed out of his enclosed world. He gradually comes to concede that Sofia may be more than a beautiful picture, becomes drawn to the spirited young Katya, and ultimately, into the intrigues within the family to separate Sofia from her child.

The story ends as the Japanese invade Shanghai, with the entire world on the brink of World War II. Ironically, it is at this point that Jackson, in acknowledging his love for Sofia and her daughter, finds reawakened his own idealism for a world free from war.

Vera (Vanessa Redgrave)
Photo by Lynn Redgrave

Director James Ivory, Lynn Redgrave, and Julian Sands at the premiere of The White Countess
Photo by Keith Stern

Olga (Lynn Redgrave), Katya (Madeleine Cooper), and Madeleine Potter in Shanghai

The White Countess is an original screenplay written by Kazuo Ishiguro, author of the novel The Remains of the Day  and the screenplay for The Saddest Music in the World. It is directed by James Ivory (The Golden Bowl, Jefferson in Paris, The Remains of the Day, Howards End, A Room with a View, Maurice).

Principal photography in and around Shanghai.


New York Times