The White Countess (2005)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V-5 ; L-5 ; S/N-2. Running time: 2 hours 15 min.

A rich man’s wealth is his strong city,
and like a high wall protecting him.
Proverbs 18L11 RSV

You, O Lord, will protect us; you will guard us from this generation for ever.
On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among humankind.
Psalm 12:7-8

The White Countess

In some ways resembling another great romantic film set in a nightclub, this is the last in the long line of distinguished films of Merchant and Ivory, Ismail Merchant having died in May of last year. Set in Shanghai of 1936-37, the film’s original screenplay is by the same author who scripted Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro. Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson are superb as Todd Jackson and Sofia Belinsky, the “White Countess” of the title, a widowed member of the White Russian family that has found refuge in Shanghai following the Bolshevik Revolution. The extended family lives in such dire straights in a run-down flat that Sofia, who works nights, must wait until her sister-in-law vacates a bed in the morning.

As if the lack of her own bed is not enough, Sofia must also suffer from the constant reminders of her family that she is a fallen woman. She has been the sole member to find employment, working as a taxi dancer at a club, a job that calls for her to do more than dancing with some of the customers. Her sister-in-law Greshenka (Madeleine Potter) and mother-in-law Olga (Lynn Redgrave) seem to enjoy cutting her. In one scene Sofia’s young daughter Katya (Madeleine Daly), who does not understand fully why her aunt and grandmother are so hard on her mother, sticks up for her when she reminds them that it is on her mother’s small salary that they all live on, otherwise one of them would have to go out and work.

Todd Jackson, once a rising star at the U.S. State Department and who was present at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, has become disillusioned by the duplicity and violence of governments. Blinded in the bombing that killed his wife and daughter, he has stayed on in Shanghai to work for a U.S. company, but of late has spent most of his time in drinking and club hopping. He tells a friendly Japanese man who comes up to him one night, Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada), that his dream is to create the perfect club, staffed with young women who are erotic and tragic, which would shut out the outside world. When he meets Sofia, he knows he has met the perfect woman for the center-piece of his dream club—she had come up to him to warn him that two men in her club were preparing to mug him, so she had escorted him safely to his waiting car. Encouraged by this, and his mysterious friend Matsuo, Jackson wages his savings at the racetrack and wins enough cash to pay for his dream.

One year later, Matsu, back in Shanghai, enters “The White Countess,” as Jackson has named his club, and renews his friendship with “Mr. Jackson,” the two always addressing each other formally. Sofia is the beautiful centerpiece of the club, but at home she is no higher in status in the eyes of her family, even though she no longer must cater to the lusts of men. Although Jackson has built his beautiful club to protect himself from the outside world, which is heading toward war, he tells Matsuda that something is missing from the club. He would like to enrich the mixture of customers by attracting members of the Kuomintang and their Communist opponents, which would result in a creative tension in the atmosphere. We learn that Matsuda is more influential than he usually lets on when he says that he can arrange that. Sure enough, soon we see groups of military officers, dressed in different uniforms enjoying their drinks and the floorshow and warily exchanging glances with one another.

This cannot go on, of course, as the Japanese aemies advance from the territory they have seized in the north. Jackson is warned that Matsuda is a dangerous man, that the Japanese army seems to follow wherever he has been in China. Meanwhile Jackson has kept Sofia at arms length. They see each other as Sofia takes her daughter on walks through the streets, one time Katya making her mother stop when they see him at a sidewalk cafe so she can talk with him. The pace picks up considerably when news that the Japanese army is just outside of Shanghai causes Sofia’s family to make plans to flee. They are able to, thanks to Sofia’s approach to Jackson, and his generosity, but they also show how they regard Sofia, resulting in her having to make a heart-rending decision. This fine drama of decision and the attempt to escape from the world should gain a larger audience once it comes to DVD.

For Reflection/Discussion

Warning: Some of the questions might be spoilers, so you might want to wait to see the film before reading further.

1) What do you think of the way in which the Belinsky family treats Sofia? Given their situation, did she have much of a choice as to profession? How is she similar to Rahab in the second chapter of Joshua?

2) How does the passage from Proverbs apply to Todd Jackson and his club? How has his past experiences contributed to this? (For a possible description of him check out Simon & Garfunkel’s classic song “I Am a Rock.”) Had he had a faith like that of the writer of the Psalm passage, how might he have turned out differently?

3) At what points do you see moments of grace in the film? How does Samuel Feinstein (Allen Corduner) become an agent of grace? What seems to be the reason why he has come to Shanghai? (For more on this see Joan Grossman and Paul Rosdy ‘s documentary The Port of Last Resort, which tells the story of the 20,000 Jews who fled Nazi-dominated Europe between 1937 and 1940, this Asian free port being their last refuge before Hitler started the war in Europe, preventing any further emigration.)

4) What do you think of Jackson’s statement to Sofia, “I grew up with people who believed in big heavy doors like yours, but they weren’t strong enough in the end.”? With what “big heavy doors” have you tried to protect yourself from the outside world? Check out John 10:9. What does this tell us about our real security?

The White Countess Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V-5 ; L-5 ; S/N-2. Running time: 2 hours 15 min.

A rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall protecting him.

Proverbs 18L11 RSV

You, O Lord, will protect us; you will guard us from this generation for ever.

On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among humankind.

Psalm 12:7-8

In some ways resembling another great romantic film set in a nightclub, this is the last in the long line of distinguished films of Merchant and Ivory, Ismail Merchant having died in May of last year. Set in Shanghai of 1936-37, the film’s original screenplay is by the same author who scripted Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro. Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson are superb as Todd Jackson and Sofia Belinsky, the “White Countess” of the title, a widowed member of the White Russian family that has found refuge in Shanghai following the Bolshevik Revolution. The extended family lives in such dire straights in a run-down flat that Sofia, who works nights, must wait until her sister-in-law vacates a bed in the morning.

As if the lack of her own bed is not enough, Sofia must also suffer from the constant reminders of her family that she is a fallen woman. She has been the sole member to find employment, working as a taxi dancer at a club, a job that calls for her to do more than dancing with some of the customers. Her sister-in-law Greshenka (Madeleine Potter) and mother-in-law Olga (Lynn Redgrave) seem to enjoy cutting her. In one scene Sofia’s young daughter Katya (Madeleine Daly), who does not understand fully why her aunt and grandmother are so hard on her mother, sticks up for her when she reminds them that it is on her mother’s small salary that they all live on, otherwise one of them would have to go out and work.

Todd Jackson, once a rising star at the U.S. State Department and who was present at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, has become disillusioned by the duplicity and violence of governments. Blinded in the bombing that killed his wife and daughter, he has stayed on in Shanghai to work for a U.S. company, but of late has spent most of his time in drinking and club hopping. He tells a friendly Japanese man who comes up to him one night, Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada), that his dream is to create the perfect club, staffed with young women who are erotic and tragic, which would shut out the outside world. When he meets Sofia, he knows he has met the perfect woman for the center-piece of his dream club—she had come up to him to warn him that two men in her club were preparing to mug him, so she had escorted him safely to his waiting car. Encouraged by this, and his mysterious friend Matsuo, Jackson wages his savings at the racetrack and wins enough cash to pay for his dream.

One year later, Matsu, back in Shanghai, enters “The White Countess,” as Jackson has named his club, and renews his friendship with “Mr. Jackson,” the two always addressing each other formally. Sofia is the beautiful centerpiece of the club, but at home she is no higher in status in the eyes of her family, even though she no longer must cater to the lusts of men. Although Jackson has built his beautiful club to protect himself from the outside world, which is heading toward war, he tells Matsuda that something is missing from the club. He would like to enrich the mixture of customers by attracting members of the Kuomintang and their Communist opponents, which would result in a creative tension in the atmosphere. We learn that Matsuda is more influential than he usually lets on when he says that he can arrange that. Sure enough, soon we see groups of military officers, dressed in different uniforms enjoying their drinks and the floorshow and warily exchanging glances with one another.

This cannot go on, of course, as the Japanese aemies advance from the territory they have seized in the north. Jackson is warned that Matsuda is a dangerous man, that the Japanese army seems to follow wherever he has been in China. Meanwhile Jackson has kept Sofia at arms length. They see each other as Sofia takes her daughter on walks through the streets, one time Katya making her mother stop when they see him at a sidewalk cafe so she can talk with him. The pace picks up considerably when news that the Japanese army is just outside of Shanghai causes Sofia’s family to make plans to flee. They are able to, thanks to Sofia’s approach to Jackson, and his generosity, but they also show how they regard Sofia, resulting in her having to make a heart-rending decision. This fine drama of decision and the attempt to escape from the world should gain a larger audience once it comes to DVD.

For Reflection/Discussion

Warning: Some of the questions might be spoilers, so you might want to wait to see the film before reading further.

1) What do you think of the way in which the Belinsky family treats Sofia? Given their situation, did she have much of a choice as to profession? How is she similar to Rahab in the second chapter of Joshua?

2) How does the passage from Proverbs apply to Todd Jackson and his club? How has his past experiences contributed to this? (For a possible description of him check out Simon & Garfunkel’s classic song “I Am a Rock.”) Had he had a faith like that of the writer of the Psalm passage, how might he have turned out differently?

3) At what points do you see moments of grace in the film? How does Samuel Feinstein (Allen Corduner) become an agent of grace? What seems to be the reason why he has come to Shanghai? (For more on this see Joan Grossman and Paul Rosdy ‘s documentary The Port of Last Resort, which tells the story of the 20,000 Jews who fled Nazi-dominated Europe between 1937 and 1940, this Asian free port being their last refuge before Hitler started the war in Europe, preventing any further emigration.)

4) What do you think of Jackson’s statement to Sofia, “I grew up with people who believed in big heavy doors like yours, but they weren’t strong enough in the end.”? With what “big heavy doors” have you tried to protect yourself from the outside world? Check out John 10:9. What does this tell us about our real security?