Shanghai, 1936. Following a series of personal and professional struggles, former American diplomat Todd Jackson renounces his old, respectable life. With Japanese aggression looming on the horizon, Jackson resolves to turn away from the conflict, setting his heart instead on opening a beautiful nightclub. He envisions a bar where people from every walk of life can gather together — a place where all, regardless of creed or culture, can enjoy themselves and leave their troubles at the door. After a well-placed bet on the track, this grand dream of his edges much closer to fruition.
One night, Jackson chances on a bar in a seedy district of Shanghai. The blind Jackson journeys alone, and his vulnerability is gleefully seized upon by a pair of thugs. We do not doubt that he would have been robbed, had it not been for the unprompted generosity of a taxi-dancer who rushes to his aid. Jackson is touched by her kindness, but perhaps even more enchanted by her story. He discovers that she is the former Countess Sofia Belinskya who has fled her home during the Russian Revolution. Jackson falls in love with the very idea of her, as well as with the woman herself. He sees in her his perfect ‘centrepiece’, and hires her as the primary hostess for The White Countess, the nightclub of his dreams which he names in her honour.
The problem with The White Countess lies not in this perfectly respectable set-up but rather in the fact that exposition seems to make up almost two-thirds of the entire film. Sad though the lives of both Sofia and Todd may have been, we cannot quite comprehend the magnitude of their tragedy because, at this particular point, nothing is actually happening to them. Because the characters have nothing at risk and nothing to lose, because they are driven to no extremes but beat on quietly just as they always have done, one cannot invest in them. The plights of the pitiful Sofia and the somewhat batty American thus remain only tepidly moving at best.
Moreover, the two are so immersed in their worlds that it is in their very nature to refuse to acknowledge the real world outside. As a result, the gorgeous, dynamic and downright fascinating setting of Shanghai is not, and simply cannot, be utilised effectively. Thus the sights and sounds of old Shanghai, which had been promised as a central attraction of The White Countess, are literally relegated to the background, bearing little significance to the film as a whole.
With the way this review is going, you would think that I had to stifle the temptation to just up and leave. And you would be right. Nevertheless, I ploughed tenaciously on, and as I did those pressing flaws seemed to fall away as the film raced (can you believe it after that impossibly languid start?) to its close. Perhaps The White Countess touches upon some of my favourite tropes, or perhaps I just have a cracking imagination, but I think the film is much better than most give it credit for. In fact, had it not been for the thoughtful, intricate exposition would the final impact of film have been as strong?
As the Countess, Richardson embodies a certain ethereality; in Todd’s words, she is the perfect ‘combination of the erotic and the tragic.’ The darker side of her character though, the side Jackson fears to acknowledge, is her reality. For the entire film, the Countess resides not in a palace of imperial Russia, but in a dingy quarter of Shanghai, scrabbling her way to make ends meet. Within the walls of The White Countess, she plays the glorious and glamorous role of her past, but with every dawn, she is brought back squarely to her reality of destitution and alienation.
Fiennes’ Todd Jackson is equally intriguing. Much like Sofia, he had lived a happy life once; but one by one, his wife, his children, even his dream of peace all nations at large, are snatched away from him. And so he opens The White Countess, building big, heavy doors to shut out all that dismays him. He is not only physically blind, but mentally blind to reality.
Literally and metaphorically, Sofia and Todd’s respective hopes and dreams, as well as the one they share — The White Countess — come crumbling down. Sofia gains enough money to book passage to Hong Kong, only to realise that her relatives have decided to leave her behind, so afraid are they that Sofia’s illicit past will ruin their reputations. Meanwhile, Jackson clings desperately on, fighting his way through fleeing crowds as the Japanese invade Shanghai. He forces though against the tides of fearful people. He makes it to his beloved White Countess, only to discover…nothing. Everything and everyone has gone, and Jackson sits alone with only emptiness and a broken dream.
By building this world so slowly, so intelligently, so painstakingly, only to rip it to shreds in the final moments, Merchant, Ivory and Ishiguro allow us to experience the very same emotions of our two characters. The full force of conflict, fear and isolation come raining down upon us. Yet the closing shot of the film, set against the light of day — a great contrast to the moody and dark atmosphere that pervades most of the film — is a hopeful one. Two boats venture side by side into the open sea — battered but still afloat. They are Sofia and Todd, two lost souls who not only find solace in each other, but together find their way in life again.