Saturday, March 19, 2011

The White Countess (2005)

The White Countess (2005) stars the late Natasha Richardson as Sofia Belinskaya, a widowed Russian countess reduced to working as a taxi-dancer and occasional prostitute in a mean bar in Shanghai. Her costar is Ralph Fiennes as Todd Jackson, a former State Department employee and diplomat who lost his wife in one terrorist attack, and his daughter -- and his vision -- in another. The story is set in Shanghai in 1936 and 1937, concluding with the Japanese attack on that city in August, 1937, that marked the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Sofia lives in a cramped slum apartment with her ten-year-old daughter, Katya (Madeline Daly); her mother-in-law, Olga (Lynn Redgrave); her sister-in-law, Grushenka (Madeline Potter); and her husband's uncle and aunt, Prince Peter (John Wood), and Princess Vera (Richardson's real-life mother, Vanessa Redgrave). Their kindly neighbor, Samuel Feinstein, is played by Allan Corduner.

Sofia and her in-laws are "White Russians", émigrés who fled the communist takeover in Russia. We are not told when they left Russia, when or how Sofia's husband died, or how long they have been in Shanghai. We only know that Sofia has been doing this work for "too long". Surely, however, she has not been taxi-dancing for the nearly 20 years since the 1917 revolution or the nearly 14 years since 1923 when the civil war ended.  Moreover, their daughter is only ten. Perhaps the family left Russia in the late 20s or early 30s and perhaps Sofia's husband provided for them all until he died.  But how he died is a mystery.

The family is entirely dependent financially on Sofia and, with rare exception, they show little love for Sofia. Her sister-in-law and mother-in-law especially look down on her, even as they avail themselves of the money she faithfully brings home, and the sister-in-law labors to drive a wedge between Sofia and her daughter. There are not enough beds for everyone, but when Sofia comes home from work at dawn, the uncle feigns sleep rather than give her his bed.  Although occasionally Sofia speaks her mind, for the most part she bears their maltreatment with a patient long-suffering that touches the heart.

As for Todd Jackson, he was at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 after World War I, and involved in the failed League of Nations that was established by that treaty. Now blind, disillusioned, repelled by international affairs, and a little unbalanced psychologically, he finds relief frequenting seedy bars. In his meanderings, he meets and befriends a Mr. Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada) who, unknown to Jackson, is an advance man for the Japanese attack that will occur in August, 1937.

Sofia and Jackson meet at her workplace when she intervenes to protect him from two thugs about to mug him. Jackson fantasizes about having his own nightclub, where he can control the environment. After placing all he has on a racetrack bet, he wins enough to implement that plan, choosing Sofia as the "centerpiece" and assuring her that her income as his hostess will mean she will no longer need to prostitute herself.

Although Jackson makes no sexual demands on Sofia and they have a relatively formal relationship for the year leading up to the Japanese attack, the two gradually reach toward each other. By the dramatic conclusion of the film, their private worlds are torn apart and they have found refuge with each other.

Except for Sofia, each character fantasizes about an ideal future:  the in-laws dream of a restored social life in Hong Kong with other aristocratic refugees, Katya dreams of a boat trip up the river to Soo Chow, Jackson dreams of the perfect bar, and Matsuda dreams of the glorious triumph of Japanese imperialism.  To the extent that Sofia dreams, however, it is only of the beauty and purity of the past.

Natasha Richardson had reverence for the character she played, describing Sofia as a woman of dignity and inner grace. Richardson gives life to those qualities in her sensitive portrayal. Among the most memorable is a sequence early on when another émigré, a younger man who had played tennis with Sofia during their teen years in Russia, comes to work in the bar where Sofia dances. He approaches her with great respect, almost awe, and before being hustled back to work by the bar manager, kisses her hand tenderly. This brings back memories to Sofia, and one feels the bittersweet longing set in motion by his tribute when, back home after the night's work, she dreams of Russia while waiting for her bed to be free.

In my view, a serious flaw in the film is the complete absence of Sofia's deceased husband from the story. There are no photographs, no memories of him, only a comment from an in-law that Sofia is bringing shame to his memory. A positive aspect is that there are no bedroom scenes or nudity. There are some unsavory goings-on in the various bars. These events seem integral to the story, however, and do not seem improper for viewing by adults. Obviously, the picture is not for children.

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