The White Countess

Winter                                                    Waning Moon of the Cold Month

We finished an old movie, one I picked up in the abandoned movies bin at the supermarket, you know, where the poor dvds have prices like $4.99 and 6.99, coming down from their new price highs, now served up like, well, like a basket of oranges or a box of cereal.  Must feel bad.

Anyhow the White Countess languished there, so I picked it up, saw Ralph Fiennes and three Redgraves.  Enough for me.  We watched it over two nights.  A Merchant-Ivory film its depiction of late 1930’s Shanghai was marvelous.  Fiennes and the now deceased Natasha Richardson carried the main plot line.  It was slow in the first hour + but I’m a sucker for costume dramas with period settings and nobody does them better than Merchant-Ivory.  In the last hour or so, the film gained momentum.  A tender moment between Fiennes and Richardson had electricity.

Fiennes played Mr. Jackson, an American diplomat, a prime mover in the failed League of Nations.  Richardson was a displaced countess from Russia, an aristocratic survivor of the Bolshevik revolution reduced to working a dance hall to earn money for the rest of her family.  Mr. Matsuda, Hiroyuki Sanada, is a Japanese zealot who becomes friends with Fiennes while discussing Mr. Jackson’s past working on a “broad canvas.”  Fiennes says there is no longer a broad canvas and that his dream is to open a special bar.

He succeeds and hires the Countess as his hostess.  They become close and slowly fall in love.

Mr. Matsuda has a reputation as the frontman for Japanese invasions.

He succeeds.  The last scenes of the movie, played out against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, show Matsuda on a balcony, his carefully tended hair disturbed slightly by a bomb blast as he surveys the invasion from a safe, high spot.  Meanwhile, Mr. Jackson has given up the bar of his dreams to seek the white countess and her daughter.  They meet and he leaves Shanghai with them for Macau.

As I see it, Mr. Jackson began his life working on a broad canvas, the League of Nations, but became disillusioned, an idealist still, but now, perhaps, realist, too.  His bar, his dream, dies in the invasion.  He is left then with only the smallest and most intimate canvas of all, love and family.

Mr. Matsuda, on the other hand, has achieved, for the moment, a master brush stroke on his broad canvas.

I think it deserved better than its 51% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

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