The White Countess (2005)




Director:     James Ivory.

Starring:      Ralph Fiennes (Todd Jackson),  Natasha Richardson (Countess Sofia Belinskya),   Lynn Redgrave (Olga Belinskya),  Madeleine Potter (Grushenka),  Madeleine Daly (Katya),  John Wood (Prince Peter Belinsky),  Vanessa Redgrave (Princess Vera Belinskya),  Allan Corduner (Samuel Feinstein),  Timur Engalychev (Feinstein Child),  Lucy Sutton (Feinstein Child),  Amir Maimon (Feinstein Child),  Itay Eltahan (Feinstein Child),  Dan Herzberg (Frenchman),  Aisln McGuckin (Maria),  Dong Fu Lin (Taxi Dance Hall Manager).

love story set in pre-war and wartime Shanghai


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Shanghai, 1936.  The women of the white Russian Belinskya family are very critical of the daughter-in-law widow Sofia of the family.  The widow's daughter Katya defends her mother against her aunt Grushenka by saying that if mama didn't go to work, then others in the family would have to.  Sofia uses the tram to get to her work.  A Frenchman tries to pick her up on the tram, but she fools him by getting off the tram at his exit just to get back on at the back of the tram in order to get away from him. 

Sofia arrives at her work.  She works as a dancer with other side activities, some of them illicit.  Her employer scolds her for not getting a new dress as he requested.  She promises to be in a new dress tomorrow. 

A group of white businessmen and some Chinese smoke cigars and talk about Japanese political intentions.   They ask a man named Todd Jackson, who happens to be blind, to tell them his opinion.  Jackson doesn't want to say, telling the men that he avoids current events as much as he can.  He leaves the place and one of the businessmen wonders out loud if maybe they need to having a parting of the ways with Jackson.  Someone else says they can't do that just now, not after what Jackson has been through. 

Jackson tells his aide Liu Chi that he would like to be taken to the little club and then to Del Monte's.  A young man named Thomas Crane sees Jackson at the little club.  He asks Jackson what he is doing in a dive like this?  Jackson just suggests that Thomas go back home and get some sleep.  He would feel terrible if Thomas got hurt in this neighborhood trying to protect him.  What would he say to the lad's father?  Thomas leaves. 

A Japanese man named Matsuda, who overheard the conversation of Jackson and Thomas, comments to Jackson that he agrees that the place is far from perfect, but is the best Shanghai has to over at this time.  He also recommends some bars to Jackson, such as the Navy Bar, the Wha Kim in the French Concession and the Last Chance.  A Russian performer sings for the crowd.  Matsuda tells Jackson that he is aware that he is an American diplomat, who the English Foreign Minister once referred to as the last hope for the League of Nations.  Jackson says he's in the bar to help him forget all of that.

Jackson and Matsuda take a little walk and talk about bars.  Jackson himself is thinking about maybe someday opening his own bar.  He speaks of the type of bouncers and women that would be needed for the ideal bar.  As they settle in at another bar, Matsuda excuses himself saying he must go.  Sofia is in this bar. A young Russian who works there comes up to her and tells her he believes he has the honor of greeting Countess Sofia Alexeyevna Belinskya.  Jackson overhears this introduction and listens in.  Sofia knows the young man.  It's Count Ilya Vladimirovitch Litvanoff.  They say a few words to each other before they both have to go back to work. 

Sofia sees a couple of Russian toughs eyeing a drunk Jackson.  As he starts to leave, she goes over to him and warns him of what might happen to him.  She offers to escort him out saying that the toughs will think he is her client and they don't dare interfere in such things.  Jackson goes with her.  She escorts him to the corner where his driver finds him.  He thanks Sofia for helping him out.  He also says that he understands the situation of the Russian refugees  -- thrown out of their country with no other countries wanting to take them in.  They say good-bye to each other.  Jackson tells Liu that he thinks he has found the one he has been looking for. 

Sofia returns to her little apartment.  Three of the women in the apartment sleep in one bed.  Sofia will sleep in a chair by herself.  She remembers back to those wonderful days of wealth and happiness in an aristocratic Russia.  In the morning when the others awaken, Sofia transfers to the now empty bed.  After Sofia gets some more sleep, she and her daughter go down to the port to look at the boats.   There Sofia haggles with the dress seller.  He promised her she could have it for $3 and now he asks for $5.  Her daughter Katya looks over the port.  Sofia gets the dress. 

Jackson goes to the race track.  He wants to place a big bet of almost everything he has.  While he is there, he runs into a colleague from the days at the League of Nations who thanks Jackson for his efforts and tells the two generals with him that Mr. Jackson is a true friend of the Chinese people.  Jackson asks but where did it get them?  The Japanese occupy the north of China and the Chinese themselves are in a state of civil war.  He excuses himself in order to place his bet. 

Jackson wins big.  Mr. Matsuda comes to say good-bye to him because he is returning to Japan.  Jackson tells him that if he returns to Shanghai within a year, he hopes to have his own bar. 

Jackson returns to the bar where Sofia works.  He tells her he is going to open his own establishment and he would like her to be the hostess.  Sofia says she would very much like to work for him, which makes him happy.  They dance together. Her employer gets mad at her for dancing with a blind man, saying it will disturb the other dancers.  Sofia tells him to go to hell.  She doesn't have to worry about him anymore. 

One year later.  Sofia and her family are still in the same apartment and she still has to hear criticism of herself from the family.   But now Jackson has his new place, The White Countess.  Mr. Matsuda arrives and is warmly greeted by Jackson, who tells him all about how he oh, so carefully selected the bar tender, the bouncers and the women.  Matsuda asks him about his hostess and Jackson says she is the centerpiece of his place.  And, yes, he did name the place with her in mind.  He says the only thing missing from the bar is a little political tension.  Jackson would like to see some Reds, some Nationalists, some Japanese and maybe some Americans in the place.

After hours Sofia plays the piano.  He goes down to talk to her.  She starts talking about her daughter, but then catches herself, saying she forgot their agreement to contain their friendship to within the walls of the bar.  Sofia doesn't like the agreement, but Jackson does.  He won't even tell her how he lost his sight.  Sofia leaves. 

Jackson sits down at the piano and remembers the big fire in which he lost his wife and son.  At the time the only other survivor was his daughter. 

Jackson sits out on the sidewalk listening to a comedy routine on the radio.  He laughs and laughs.  Katya and her mother come along and Katya says hello to Jackson, who does not say anything.  Sofia pulls Katya away.  Katya, however, is very curious about this blind man and she runs back to him.  She frankly tells him that her mother says he is often bad-tempered.  He apologizes for that.  She then tells him he must promise to take her mother, Aunt Vera and her on a river boat trip to Soochow one day.  Sofia pulls her daughter away again. 

Katya's request that he promise her something reminds him of his own daughter's request that when she is married and with children that he come to live with them.  He promised his daughter to never leave her alone. 

The news of the day is of Japanese provocations. 

Sister Grusha tells Sofia that Katya put Sofia's rouge on her face.  She tells her sister that she should not come near Katya when she is all decked out for her job.  Sofia submissively agrees. She does, however, have a request of Grusha.  She makes Grusha swear that if anything every should happen to her that she will love her daughter and treat her gently at all times.  Grusha swears. 

One of the Shanghai Daily News headlines is:  "Japanese Deny Aggressive Intentions".  Another headline is:  "Leftist Students Disrupt Nanjing Road"  There is also news of strife between the Reds and the Nationalist Chinese. 

Mr. Matsuda comes to see Jackson.  He says he knows a way to bring political tension to his club.  He knows a very influential Chinese fellow in Shanghai who could persuade people of varying political views to do as he requests.  The man is something of a hood.  Jackson asks why the man would help him?  Because Matsuda has political influence over this man.  Matsuda suggests Jackson start slowly and introduce one group at a time so they can get used to each other. 

Matsuda helps Jackson attain his goal of political tension.  But then he asks Jackson if he doesn't want to work on a broader canvas.  He himself hopes he can help Japan become a greater nation. 

Uncle Peter and Aunt Vera go to the French Consulate to see an old friend , a consulate.  A man named Antoine Jacquier recognizes them as the Prince and Princess Belinsky.  The Princess tells him they have come to pay their respects to Monsieur de Passavant.  They knew Antoine when he was just ten years of age. 

Grusha tells Sofia that Antoine has promised them help in getting a ship to Hong Kong.  All they need is money for the costs of moving.  Sofia says she will try to get the money.  Grusha tells her that everyone is afraid of the Japanese and it soon may be too late to get away. 

Thomas comes to see Jackson.  He says the board of directors is concerned about his way of life.  Some of the board members think he should no longer be associated with the company.  And then there is the matter of his association with Matsuda.  He is a man much feared by the Chinese authorities.  Wherever he shows up, a Japanese invasion is not far behind.  Jackson says he is friends with Matsuda on a personal basis alone. He will not disassociate himself from the man.  Thomas says he is disappointed in Jackson and leaves.

The Frenchman that Sofia had to get away from comes in and starts smooth-talking Sofia.  Jackson becomes infuriated and has the man thrown out.  Sofia pulls him away and up the stairs.  He kisses her passionately.  She tells him to go to sleep. 

After hours Jackson comes downstairs.  Sofia says he hasn't been acting the same lately and he says the same of her.  He asks her about her daughter.  Sofia says she is worried that her lifestyle is hurting her daughter.   Jackson says she shouldn't be thinking such thoughts.  Now he opens up to Sofia.  He says he had a daughter once.  Her name was Christiana.  He made a promise to her that he couldn't keep. There was an explosion while riding on a tram and his daughter was killed and he badly hurt, losing his sight.  He was afraid that before his daughter died, she was all alone without him.  Now Jackson says he would like to take Sofia and her daughter to the gardens.

The three go to the local gardens.  Katya gets him to say that he will think of taking her on a boat trip.  Sofia says she needs $300 dollars.  He wants to know why, but she tells him he wouldn't like to hear about it.  Later they run into Sofia's Jewish neighbor Mr. Feinstein.  Some white man makes an anti-Semitic remark about the neighbor. 

Jackson gives Sofia the money she needs.  She in turn gives the money to her mother-in-law, who says nothing to her daughter-in-law.

The Japanese are on the move.   The mother-in-law tells Sofia that she is not going with them to Hong Kong this evening.  She says the family decided this.  Then she says they were not able to buy paper for her.  They will send for her in a little while.  They will have a new start in society, but none of this would be possible if Sofia is with them.  People are panicked and are fleeing Shanghai.  Liu warns Jackson that they should turn the car around.  No one will be coming to The White Countess tonight.  Jackson tells him to keep going.  Liu says he will not go on.  So Jackson just gets out of the car and starts walking to his destination.

Mr. Feinstein finds out that his neighbors are leaving.  He goes home to pack.  He hears someone upstairs and rushes to investigate.  He finds Sofia crying and asks why they would leave her behind?  Sofia says it's for the best.  He tells her to get Katya back and they can leave with them to go to Macao.  An airplane is heard over the city.  It drops a bomb on Shanghai. 

Mr. Feinstein takes Sofia down to the docks to get Katya.  Mr. Matsuda sees Sofia walk past his car.  He gets out to look.  Matsuda goes to the bar to see Jackson.  Jackson tells Matsuda that he almost made a fool out of him.  Matsuda tells him that he is genuinely happy that they could be friends and create something good together.  He would feel bad if Mr. Jackson thought he had deceived him.  He wants Jackson to come with him, but Jackson says this is where their paths have to divide.  Matsuda starts to leave, but then turns around to tell Jackson he should build himself another little world, this time with the Countess Sofia.  Jackson says it's too late, but Matsuda says it's not.  He just saw Sofia heading for the docks.  Now he leaves.

Jackson starts heading for the docks.  He gets knocked down and can't find his cane.  He runs right into Japanese troops.  They see he is blind and let him pass through their lines.  Sofia is down by the docks looking for Katya.  Feinstein suddenly sees Jackson and calls his name out.  Katya's boat will soon be pulling out.  Feinstein tells Jackson that the family left Sofia behind.  Jackson and Feinstein get down to the boat and tell Katya that her mother is with them.  Sofia pushes though and grabs her daughter from the family.  Grusha screams out for "her" baby and cries inconsolably. 

Jackson, Sofia, Katya and the whole Feinstein family are together.  Feinstein tells them that they will be going soon.  Jackson asks Sofia if she and Katya would like to help him, a blind man in a dangerous world.  Sofia says yes, but he must start by staying right here with them.  In a large group, the westerners go with many Chinese by boat to Macao.  Jackson apologizes to Katya for this not being the boat ride they had talked about. 


Good film and love story.  It's Shanghai just before the Japanese invasion of China to start the Sino-Japanese War, perhaps the real start of World War II.  Increasing tensions accumulate as time goes by.  The blind American Mr. Jackson tries to shut out the real world and manages to shut out love too.  The man is blind in more ways than the physical, but in terms of love too.  It's a little girl named Katya that helps wake him up, along with a bad case of jealousy when some other man tries to get the woman Sofia he feels so attached to.   The women help Jackson let a little light into his pretend world.  The Japanese invasion suddenly disturbs everyone's life and relations in Shanghai.  Thousands try to flee.  Jackson feels he has lost everything, but a Japanese high official friend of his tells him it's just not true.  And Jackson comes completely to life for once. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


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