Year Released: 2005
Directed by: James Ivory
Starring: Natasha Richardson, Ralph Fiennes, Lynn Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Allan Corduner
(PG-13, 138 min.)
"The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe" Joanna Macy
Think of everything that guarantees box office gold – squealing car chases, steamy passion, rampant explosions, tortuous plot twists, hormone addled teens or octogenarians, and a peppering of coarse humor thrown in for good measure. Well, you’ll get none of it with this final Merchant Ivory collaboration set in 1936 Shanghai, but the simple story will stay with you long after the latest blockbuster fades from memory.
Since it's too late to catch it at the local cinema, why not economize and see The White Countess on the big screen in your living room where the chairs are much more comfortable and the popcorn a heck of a lot cheaper.
Featuring three of the famous Redgrave acting clan as well as the impeccable Ralph Fiennes, it is the story of a displaced Russian countess making ends meet as a bar girl and a disillusioned American diplomat whose dreams of achieving world peace have narrowed down to owning the perfect night club. Kind of like Masterpiece Theater does Casablanca with a little Dostoyevsky on the side.
It is the verge of World War II, with the Japanese slowly bearing down on China, and most everyone in Shanghai is in a sort of self-imposed exile, from the amiable Jewish tailor (Allan Corduner) to the countess’s royal family, who accept her tainted paychecks with nothing short of contempt. Mr. Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada), the elegant connoisseur who befriends Fiennes’ Mr. Jackson, is not an exile, but the creator of them, the velvet glove of Japan’s iron fist.
Yet in that island of nightclub perfection that Mr. Jackson names the White Countess, the world of chaos and coarseness is put aside, and the two men can share thoughts on the club’s flawlessness. The Countess Sofia Belinskya (Natasha Richardson), rescued from a less delicate operation where her job description often required her to “fall in love” with her clients, to use the correct euphemism, epitomizes Jackson's ideal blend of the “erotic and tragic,” while the flawlessly cast bouncers are imbued with just the right degree of menace to discourage any violence. In fact, to Mr. Jackson, the White Countess is not so much a bar as a work of art, perhaps even a symphony. “With the right team of bouncers, you could conduct the play like an orchestra.”
His cocoon of perfection is just as much an escape from bad memories as is the gruff Rick’s American Bar in the Bogart classic. Not only does Mr. Jackson now realize that his work at Versailles at the end of the Great War has been a futile exercise, but he has lost both his wife and daughter, the latter in a tragic fire that cost him his eyesight. It is perhaps to ward off another painful loss that he wishes Sofia to remain on her pedestal, an ornament for the club and nothing else.
But the real world has a way of encroaching on pristine paradises just as it does on hermetically sealed hearts. As the Japanese approach Shanghai, Jr. Jackson’s cloistered world and emotions are invaded simultaneously. Yet he still denies them, leaving the safety of his chauffeured car to struggle through the throng back to his club, where he pours drinks for the handful of clients who share his bad judgment about staying there. Nor does a final visit from Mr. Matsuda, who offers to take him to safety, shatter his denial. Matsuda leaves him with the admonition that it is the flesh and blood white countess and not the building that needs his attention.
But much of the insight of the film is an inner reality quite apart from any external chaos. The family of Sofia’s late husband, reduced to their sordid life in a Shanghai semi slum, must peel their own potatoes and even sleep in shifts. They routinely take the salary Sofia turns over to them even as they regale her in front of her daughter Katya as a source of shame. Yet, something tells me that even back in pre revolutionary Russia, with their elegant gowns, their superior servants, and the fawning public, they would still resent Sofia for her radiant beauty and goodness, still try, in perhaps more insidious ways, to wrest Katya’s loyalty from her mother.
Many critics see the parallel between Mr. Jackson’s island of perfection, the White Countess, and the exquisite body of work produced by Merchant Ivory. Outside the Shanghai club the barbarians are at the gates, just as the Merchant Ivory productions are an isle of beauty surrounded by a commercially crass Hollywood that riots in its own excess. Merchant Ivory’s 43 years of collaboration have produced such gems as A Room with a View, Howards End, and The Remains of the Day, to name a few. Yet even the thickest of doors yield to the battering ram, and in 2005 Ishmail Merchant died, making The White Countess the final collaboration, although the production company still exists and turns out quality films, such as the recent Before the Rains.
Why not make it a Merchant Ivory weekend and rent a slew of these jewels? Then for a few pristine hours you too can keep the barbarians at bay.
Our American diplomat Mr. Jackson names his ideal bar after a Russian beauty who has befriended him. Sofia is a countess in exile, a White Russian who has fled the Bolshevik Red Army to seek out a meager existence in the Freeport of Shanghai. Appropriately Mr. Jackson names his bar the White Countess.
Thus, what comes to mind immediately is that charming cocktail called the White Russian, a smooth concoction of vodka, Kahlua, and cream. It’s a lot like iced coffee, but with a kick, and there are endless variations, as you’ll see in the following recipe.
And when you lift your drinks, be sure to toast the lovely Natasha Richardson, whom we lost this year all too soon.
White Russian Cocktail
The White Russian is a drink everyone should know. It's a simple, creamy vodka mixed drink with a nice coffee flavor that makes a great after dinner sipper. If you skip the cream you'll have a Black Russian, give the White Russian a shake at the end and you have a Dirty Bird, add amaretto and you have a Roasted Toasted Almond. The related drink list to the White Russian is almost endless.
- 1 1/2 oz vodka
- 3/4 oz Kahlua
- 3/4 oz cream
- Pour the vodka and Kahlua into an old-fashioned glass filled with ice.
- Gently top with the cream.
Recipe Source: About.com:Cocktails