'White Countess': Casablanca, Shanghaied

Ralph Fiennes as a nightclub owner in Shanghai and Natasha Richardson as a refugee White Russian countess are attractive, but they're not Rick and Ilsa.
Ralph Fiennes as a nightclub owner in Shanghai and Natasha Richardson as a refugee White Russian countess are attractive, but they're not Rick and Ilsa. (By Tomoko Kikuchi -- Sony Pictures Classics Via Associated Press)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2006

Everyone wants to be someone else. I, for one, would like to be Hideo Gosha, but that's another story. This story is about James Ivory, who evidently wants to be Michael Curtiz.

What other explanation is there for the oddness that is "The White Countess," which echoes in many ways the plot and concerns (to say nothing of the elegant clothes) of Curtiz's great "Casablanca."

Or maybe it's the Japanese novelist-screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro who wants to be Howard Koch. Whatever, the handsome film mounted on the ghost of "Casablanca" just doesn't quite hang together in any way except as travelogue to the Shanghai of 1936.

Hmmmm, Shanghai '36 or Casablanca '42? Hard to chose. One vintage features Nazis, the French of Vichy and of the Free French (and in between), gambling, jazz, lots of cigarettes, an American soldier of fortune and gin-joint owner and a dame with a past. On the other hand, for sin, romance, adventure, spies, gangsters, Japanese intelligence agents, Red Chinese, White Russians (including a dame with a past), world-famous brothels, Chiang Kai-shek's boys, corruption, opium, and nightclubs and lots of cigarette smoke and very cool clothes, Shanghai drives a hard bargain.

But Ishiguro and Ivory (with the connivance of the late producer Ismail Merchant, whose last movie this was, alas) completely confound things by giving their American hero and disillusioned gin-joint owner a handicap: He's blind.

Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) is a former American diplomat who believed in the League of Nations and brought his family to China to work on its behalf -- the family was wiped out, first wife and son, then daughter in episodes of hazily defined political violence (China's civil war, between Reds and Nationalists, was raging at the time), and he's left with nothing except hatred of politics, and eternal darkness.

Thus, with the help of a long-shot racehorse, a White Russian countess (Natasha Richardson), a smooth-talking Japanese spy (the distinguished Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada), he makes a freak pot of money and opens a joint called the White Countess, which has the special forte, in a city seething with intrigue, of being a milieu of complete apoliticism. Everyone goes to the Countess, because the intrigue is left out.

But why make him blind? Perhaps there's some symbolic reason I am too thick to fathom (always a possibility), but it certainly hamstrings the movie, which keeps turning on contrivances difficult to believe. A blind nightclub owner? Well, okay, but wouldn't a blind nightclub owner have to be like a blind version of "Casablanca's" Rick Blaine: that is, tough, shrewd, manipulative, aggressive, ably assisted by extremely loyal assistants?

For some reason, that's not the character of Todd Jackson; it's more of a Ralph Fiennes thing, more akin to the personality he evoked in "The Constant Gardener" -- meek, winsome, sentimental, nostalgic and interested in closing the world out, not controlling it. It would be more in keeping with the Ivory-Ishiguro-Fiennes conception if he opened a garden, where various people of various ilks could come and enjoy serenity and beauty. There'd be no musicians to pay.

Despite its brilliant evocation of this great city at this most provocative time in history, the movie just gets sillier and sillier. It seems to be built not on political or historical issues but on emotional ones: The key drama watches as Fiennes's character comes out of his disillusionment and learns to feel again, as he falls for Richardson.

She's a number, too. An actual countess, she's now forced to work as a dime-a-dance gal to support her daughter, her mother and father-in-law, and her dead husband's sisters, all exiled Russian aristos. One casting gimmick doesn't pay the dividends it should: The White family is actually a Red family -- Red as in "Redgrave." Vanessa and Lynn are among its members, and they are, of course, related to Richardson, who is Vanessa's daughter by the British director Tony Richardson, and Lynn's niece. (Too bad the production couldn't have gotten Richardson's hubby, Liam Neeson, in the Fiennes role -- the whole family could have vacationed together in Shanghai, where the film was shot.)

Richardson's character is a hard cookie, too, over-dependent on her relatives' goodwill and closed down by her own repressions and wariness. So the movie, under it all, is about two people overcoming repression (repression was also the theme of Ishiguro's great novel "The Remains of the Day," which became Ivory-Merchant's best film) and learning to fall in love again.

You have to ask: Why bother with all the history if you want to make a movie about repression?

Particularly this movie, which reaches its climax during the Battle of Shanghai in late 1937. Remember Rick telling Ilsa: "I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." That's the point of "Casablanca," and that's explicitly not the point of "The White Countess," which argues that the problems of three little people do amount to a hill of beans a mile high.

But it only takes a quick lookie-see to puncture that delusion. In fact, the Battle of Shanghai was one of the bloodiest fights in the Sino-Japanese War; the Chinese lost 200,000 men, including 800 who stayed behind in Sihang Warehouse to cover the retreat of thousands of others, and fought to the last man.

That episode -- in fact, all the tragic history of China in the '30s -- is nowhere glimpsed in "The White Countess." The film is too busy adding beans to the hill.

The White Countess (138 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for discreet war violence.

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