The White Countess

Another Merchant-Ivory Classic

"Between the erotic and the tragic"

So Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) describes both his "perfect little bar" and "women" in 1936 Shanghai, with tensions mounting between the communists and the Kuomintang and the Japanese preparing for invasion as part of another weary world war.

This Merchant-Ivory classic, directed by James Ivory, and the final (Merchant recently died) in a long line of great films such as Howard's End and Room with a View, has the right balance between Jackson's Rick Blaine-like isolationism and Sofia Belinsky's (Natasha Richardson) former-Russian-countess elegance decidedly less erotic and more meretricious in these exile days, just as you might characterize Ingrid Bergman's turn to matters other than adultery.

It's a world more Graham Greene than E.M. Forster, with intrigues floating in and out of the neutral White Countess bar as physically blinded Jackson tries to solve the world's unrest through congenial neutrality, a big improvement over Bogart's Rick's self denials in his Caf? American.

Fiennes is no Bogie, but his gruff American mien and sometimes crude attitude are effective at paralleling the immaturity of the allies in the face of an exterminating machine too horrible to be believed. The chaotic denouement of fleeing the Japanese and the lingering surface nature of the leads' love compromise the otherwise involving drama.