The White Countess

6.62 h 15 min2005X-RayPG-13
Set in 1930s Shanghai, where a blind American diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) develops a curious relationship with a young Russian refugee (Natasha Richardson) who works odd -- and sometimes illicit -- jobs to support members of her dead husband's aristocratic family.
James Ivory
Ralph FiennesNatasha RichardsonLee Pace
English [CC]
Audio languages

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Supporting actors
Vanessa RedgraveHiroyuki SanadaLynn RedgraveJohn Wood
Andreas GroschIsmail MerchantZhonglun Ren
Sony Pictures Classics
PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned)
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Smokingalcohol usefoul languagesexual contentviolence
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4.2 out of 5 stars

313 global ratings

  1. 63% of reviews have 5 stars
  2. 14% of reviews have 4 stars
  3. 7% of reviews have 3 stars
  4. 9% of reviews have 2 stars
  5. 7% of reviews have 1 stars
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Top reviews from the United States

ArtzyReviewed in the United States on June 8, 2020
4.0 out of 5 stars
Deserves both the good and not so good reviews
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I understand why some viewers where underwhelmed with the movie but I appreciated it enough to award it 4 stars. The acting was purposefully understated (Mr. Fiennes is always brilliant in those kind of roles) in the midst of the commotion going on in the story. It would have been too much to have overpowering acting given the circumstances the characters found themselves in. Maybe the ending was a little too "perfect" but considering all the tragedy in the diplomat's life it would have been unfair to throw more at him. A good film.
19 people found this helpful
Lawrence RobertsReviewed in the United States on August 14, 2020
4.0 out of 5 stars
An excellent movie. Not perfect, will never be called great, but don’t miss it.
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I love movies about pre 1937 Shanghai. Shanghai was the most the most incredible city in the world at that time. It had virtually no central government, like much of China, and what it did have was totally corrupt and selling out its people to the foreigners who were there exploiting the Chinese in every manner of business. You could get anything you wanted in the Shanghai of the 1930s – from posh high class night life (shown in this movie), to art, to musical and dramatic performances by Chinese or any number of foreign cultures, play polo or tennis or swim in an exclusive upscale club for foreigners - to drugs, prostitutes, gambling, etc. Most Western newsmen, businessmen, government employees, or even common sailors who went there did not want to leave. It would take more than a single movie to capture all of this, but one strength of this movie is that it does give us a pretty good slice of it with the more tawdry dance halls (prostitute pick up joints), the very upscale clubs of excellent music, live performances, and a glimpse into the night life of the wealthy and privileged. It shows this against the backdrop of the poverty that haunted most Chinese – those who were not corrupt officials, traders, or vice lords. There must be a thousand stories in 1930s Shanghai, but have not been more than a half dozen movies about it.

Natasha Richardson is a White Russian Countess, deposed by the revolution, and living in relative squalor in Shanghai after the Russian proletariat deposed her family not only of status, but of all of their holdings and wealth. She lives with a family that, as I gather, was a mother in law, an aunt, a sister in law, a father in law and her little girl. She maintains her poise and charm, but she also has adapted to the fact that they must survive and she alone goes out into the tawdry world of Shanghai nightlife to support the family. The others sit at home, maintaining the kind of arrogance and hypocrisy and cruel contempt for the lower classes (that they now are part of despite their refusal to accept it) that led to the overthrow of the Russian ruling class, and pretending that someday they will live as they had before. Natasha gives us an ex-Countess, not as a spoiled aristocrat turned whore out of necessity, but an elegant, poised, resourceful woman who desperately loves her daughter Katya, and is loyal to this most unappreciative family, and who maintains the core of her character despite her circumstance.

Ralph Fiennes plays a role which he is well suited for, but somehow, he never really gives us enough to know what he really is, or for that matter, is not. When I saw them together in a scene, I felt well fed and satisfied with my main course of Richardson. But, I felt I have been given nothing more than a morsel, a tiny hors d oeuvre, and hungering for more with Fiennes. From the opening scene he has some kind of position with some hugely successful trading company – but other than that scene, until he essentially gets fired late in the movie – he has nothing to do with them. He never goes to meetings, or to work in an office. We learn he has been in the USA State Department, and somewhere early in the movie, perhaps his first meeting with the mysterious Matsuda, he is described as the last hope of the League of Nations – implying that his worldly dream is peace and cooperation between nations – which the United States never joined due to an isolationist Congress. This seems at odds with Jackson’s (Fiennes character) later complaint to Matsuda after he has gotten his posh, very exclusive, club off the ground “that there is no political tension here.”
So it is quite unclear what Jackson is doing in Shanghai – other than wandering in his melancholy – he seems to be employed by no one, his family is gone, but he is here. He wins a pile of money in a horse race and creates his world in the form of a posh night club. He invites the Countess to be his hostess. This is not a dance hall where you pick up whores – and she is more than happy to accept the position as she does nothing more (nor less) that greet the customers, provide an elegant and charming face behind the name of his club.
Then, as all is going well, enter the equally mysterious Matsuda. Matsuda seems to have been put in the script simply to give Jackson a way of expressing his philosophy of life, and particularly, his dream of a bigger world, something that he has not yet created. We learn late in the movie that Matsuda is some kind of agent facilitating the invasion of Shanghai by the Japanese. But for me, that dog just does not hunt. Not sure how a gentleman attending posh night clubs facilitates an invasion anyway – but perhaps he is part of a secret intelligence organization – in which case he would have a front job and would be happy to disclose it since it would divert attention away from the fact that he is essentially a spy. Or, perhaps he is in the diplomatic circle trying to lure the city officials into betrayal – but again, his credentials would not need to be hidden. It just seems such a contrived character that exists only for Jackson to pontificate on his hidden view of the world. I consider this a major flaw in the movie.
And Jackson wants more “political tension” in his club and Matsuda suggests Chinese Reds, Chinese nationalist soldiers, Japanese sailors, etc. Well, Jackson’s need for political tension to expand and improve that little world that only he sees is, in and of itself, a mystery; but inviting soldiers and sailors of three opposing militaries seems almost laughable. What? He want brawls, fist fights, to provide his political tension? This is not a club for soldiers and sailors – this part of the screenplay is so novice it really hurts the movie.
I am not going to spoil any more of it. Jackson certainly deserves to be veiled, hiding from emotion, and perhaps even bitter after the bitter pill of losing his entire family and his eyesight in two separate tragic events. His blindness allows him to see a world that he seems unable to reveal to anyone other than Matsuda – certainly, I could never see it. In that way he makes us as blind as he is. Perhaps that is what he wanted.

I liked the ending, although, it still was shrouded with a lot of uncertainty. Nevertheless, it showed him to see again through his feelings for the Countess, it showed the incredible courage, strength, and morality of the Countess by her desperate and unrelenting attempt to recover her beloved daughter, and her deep and genuine love for Jackson.

A few and significant flaws or it would be 5 stars. But watch it. It is well worth it.
9 people found this helpful
Anil K SrivastavaReviewed in the United States on June 10, 2019
4.0 out of 5 stars
The travails of a Russian Countess in 1930s Shanghai.
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It is Shanghai in 1930s where all different sorts of Europeans and Americans established their ways of living inside the ancient Chinese city. The story is about an American middle-aged man who lives in a world inside his head, blind to the world around him. Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) is a former American diplomat who lost his vision. Yes, and yes—in both physical and psychological sense. He had buried his wife and a son after a house fire, and a few years after that, lost his only surviving child in a terrorist bombing incidence that also took away his sight. It is no surprise that the man is in a bitter despair. He becomes a man of lost faith. In his darkness, Jackson obstinately clings to and cultivates a rather esoteric ideal—creating a perfect nightclub. When Jackson meets Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson), a Russian Countess who is forced to work dishonorable jobs to support her dead husband's family and her daughter, he immediately sees in his head a perfect centerpiece for his dream club.
One thing that is extraordinary about this movie is the beautiful acting performance. Fiennes, often called the best internal actor of his generation, gives a stunningly exquisite performance as the blind man who resides in a world inside his mind—take just an example of the shadow of disappointment casting down on the lonely man's face when his new friend Matsuda bids him good night after a long night's conversation about nightclubs in Shanghai. It somehow makes cinematic sense that a person who cannot see other people's faces inadvertently reveals his soul with most minute movements of eyes and facial muscles. Although Fiennes' delicate features and willow physique do not quite conjure up the image of Humphrey Bogart to which the Jackson character curiously alludes, Fiennes makes a perfect bar owner in the style of Rick Blaine (Casablanca) meets Oscar Hopkins (played by Fiennes in Oscar and Lucinda). Richardson wonderfully materializes "the perfect combination of the erotic and the tragic" and gives a heart-breaking performance as the aristocratic woman fallen to the reality of a horrid and abject life, and a mother who is going to do anything to save her child's future.
15 people found this helpful
lawyeraauReviewed in the United States on May 16, 2021
4.0 out of 5 stars
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I confess that this story gets off to a bit of a slow start. Moreover, if one does not know a bit of history, some of the film will go over one’s head. At its core are the stories of displaced persons struggling to survive in 1930s Shanghai.

The crux of the film primarily centers on two converging stories. One is that of an unhappy former American diplomat, who is blind both figuratively and literally. The other is that of a displaced Russian countess living in poverty with her daughter and scornful family, supporting them by sometimes illicit or distasteful means.

At one point, the countess does the former diplomat, who was a stranger to her, a good turn. So, when he opens a club in Shanghai, he hires the countess to work for him as a type of hostess in his club. There is nothing untoward in their relationship. Still a bond forms. He, in turn, is befriended by a Japanese “business” man, only to realize too late that he was too blind to realize that his club was being used for nefarious reasons by the Japanese.

Things come to a head when the Japanese invade Shanghai and all hell breaks look. The countess realizes just how horrible her family has been to her, and the former American Diplomat also has an aha! moment. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.

The film has a fine cast, and Natasha Richardson, in particular, gives a luminous performance. This is a Merchant Ivory film with a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature. Despite all theses bells and whistles, the film bombed at the box office.
One person found this helpful
Raisuli the MagnificentReviewed in the United States on November 9, 2016
3.0 out of 5 stars
This film needed a fire fight or two.
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Exceptionally well shot this "love story", if you could call it that, lacks passion, and caters to a demographic of those who have fallen from grace and found themselves in dire social straits. It's an interesting film to look at, but some of the subplots inferences are a bit too esoteric. Casing actual Russian actors and kicking up the pacing of the film might have helped.

The male lead could also have used a little more zing in his character, and perhaps been more involved int he political scene rather than just be a poor unfortunate of circumstances with a past and handicap.

I don't mind slow paced films, but they need a point. This one needed a revamp of the male lead, maybe a fire fight or two (bombs dropped in the water don't merely kick up plumes, and bombs dropped on the ground could take out half a building, not merely kick up dirt).

It's an A-film with an A-minus theme and love story. For all the production values dumped into this thing one would have thought that there was a more compelling story to be told.

Not really a bad film, but not the outstanding period love story I was hoping for.

An okay watch.
10 people found this helpful
Denise I. Reviewed in the United States on June 13, 2020
5.0 out of 5 stars
Beautiful in every way.
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I notice some reviewers were in search of a plot or story. This is a beautiful film that takes place in an existentialist space where displaced people strive to survive, to create a world they conceive of in their minds, and struggle with lost identities as the outside world rudely intrudes. In short, it's about the human condition. To enjoy it, you absolutely must suspend your disbelief and just experience it. Great performances, gorgeous production values and sound track.
4 people found this helpful
lawrence chanReviewed in the United States on November 14, 2014
5.0 out of 5 stars
Not a typical Merchant-Ivory film, but still well worth watching.
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James Ivory is one of the few directors who can orchestrate a complex script with profound skill and breathtaking results.
He is to film making what James Levine is to the Met Opera.

In this latest oeuvre, we are introduced to a family of exiled Tzarist nobles living in Shanghai in the aftermath of the Russian revolution.
They abhor their impoverished lives in a crumbling tenament existing on memories of a once gilded past.
Interestingly enough there is only a single member of this family who takes the initiative to provide for the family by working in a "dance hall" wherein patrons pay for the pleasure of a dance and an occasional dalliance with any one of the beautiful women employed by the owner of this questionable establishment.

The rest of the family seem unwilling to demean themselves by working as seamstresses, factory workers or perform any menial labor that they deem to be beneath their dignity; or what is left of it. Instead they waste all their time and energy in constant bickering and bemoaning the fact that one of their own has brought shame upon the family name since she virtually works as a prostitute to keep the rest of them alive.

The matriarch of the family was once a celebrated pianist in her own right and gave lessons to the privileged children of their elite society; so it's puzzling as to why she never considers taking this up again, just as there were other women who taught English or did whatever was necessary to survive. it is the encumbered Countess Sophia who single handedly provides the rest of the useless lot with the means to keep food on the table and engage in delusional fantasies about the return of a Tzarist Russia.

Ralph Fiennes gives a decidedly odd performance as a once celebrated American diplomat who lost his sight during a terrorist attack.
It is he who "intuitively" takes notice of the Countess and persuades her to be; for lack of a better description, a virtual "centerpiece" for his posh nightclub that caters to the upper crust society of Shanghai; the fabled "Paris of The East".
The countess is now employed as an aesthetic contrivance who adds a touch of glamor but is nothing more than a glorified hostess; still it's certainly better than being a dance hall prostitute to say the least.

All of these events, by the way, are taking place during WW II with the republican elements of China feuding with the communists for control of the country, while the shadow of an imminent Japanese invasion of Shanghai is looming over them.

The inferences of Mr. Fiennes' finely honed powers of "intuition" are as puzzling as his overall personae and mannerisms, which can only be described as quirky and erratic. The performance is confusing to say the least and his character can only best be described as "eccentric" to put it politely. He also displays a naivetee that is not in keeping with the attributes of a seasoned diplomat.

Ultimately, the impoverished nobles persuade the countess to obtain funds for their escape to Hong Kong, where they believe that life as they once knew it is waiting for them which only underscores the magnitude of their delusions. They take the funds to obtain the necessary papers they will need to emigrate but intend to abandon the countess and essentially kidnap her daughter so that she will not know the "shame" her mother has brought on them.

Natasha Richardson delivers a thoroughly satiating performance which is far more believable than Mr. Fiennes uneven portrayal of a former diplomat turned night club owner.
The plot is certainly viable but lacks the polished cohesion that elucidates the complexities of the storyline.

The overall production is a flawed beauty that only occasionally reveals the high notes with absolute precision.
17 people found this helpful
F. ThysReviewed in the United States on July 9, 2020
3.0 out of 5 stars
An immersion into another world.
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This film pulled me in and wouldn't let me go. A beautiful story of refugees in a lost world. Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson are luminous. I couldn't take my eyes off them. He plays a former American diplomat who opens a night club in 1937 Shanghai. She is the White Countess, a refugee from Russia who supports a family that is ashamed of her. The Russians live in a neighborhood where their neighbors are Jewish refugees from Europe. All these people have lost their worlds and sought refuge in another world about to disappear. Original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, who later won the Nobel Prize. Directed by James Ivory. This was producer Ismail Merchant's last film. A gorgeous film with intricate sets but also shot on location in Shanghai.
One person found this helpful
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