Last week I watched the DVD of The White Countess, one of those classy Merchant Ivory productions that critics adore and virtually no one goes to see. This is not because these are usually bad movies, but because most people wouldn’t know compelling filmmaking if they ran over it with their car (they would likely keep driving and never look back). It is the product of bringing together screenwriter Kazuo Ishugiro with director James Ivory of Remains of the Day fame once again. Ismail Merchant, the producer side of the Merchant Ivory label, died in the same year the film was released.

Starring Ralph Fiennes as a blind American retired diplomat Todd Jackson, now lending his name to give credibility to a business venture in Shanghai (gotta love that Open Door!), and Natasha Richardson as the eponymous White countess Sofia Belinsky, who is living in exile with her family, the film can best be described as a sort of Casablanca in reverse or, better yet, Casablanca inverted. (I should give credit to Leon Hadar’s post on The Lost City, which reminded me of the Casablanca comparison I wanted to make with Countess.)

Arguably, it is much better than Casablanca in the message that it conveys. The man tending to his own business and looking after his loved ones, as Jackson tries to do, is not the moral coward, as Casablanca in its rah-rah, anti-isolationist agitprop told us. On the contrary, it is the nationalist Matsuda, paving the way for the invasion that destroys the lives of our characters and drives the movie to its conclusion, who bears the marks of shame. Its love story between Jackson and Sofia is more compelling in its way, perhaps because it really is tragic and not saccharine in the “Here’s looking at you, kid” style.

Like Rick in Casablanca, Jackson has been reduced to political cynicism and has withdrawn from the world of politics all together. An old League of Nations man who made some efforts on behalf of China when Japan occupied Manchuria, he is something of a broken man after diplomatic failure and, more importantly, the deaths of his wife and children. Unlike Casablanca, Jackson does not start out with a bar or club, but it is his life’s ambition to start up a really swank and happening joint that he has seen in his mind’s eye for years. Instead of striking up a famous friendship at the end, Jackson befriends the Japanese spy Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada), who later helps him to improve the club he created. Instead of giving up the girl to go fight the Good War in some capacity, our man Jackson stays with the girl and leaves Shanghai.

Jackson first meets Sofia at the club where she dances with the
patrons and, when her family’s need demands it, occasionally turns to prostitution. Having met her once, he decides that she will be the hostess and the “centerpiece” of his new creation. Having won the money to start his club, he provides Sofia with a decent job and gradually begins to fall for her. Their love story is one of the least traditionally romantic of any film made or set in the 1930s, and it is all the better for it.

The tragedy of Big Ideas, or, as Matsuda calls it, “the broader canvas” is made stunningly clear as the brutality and folly of imperialism destroys the place that Matsuda and Jackson helped to bring to life, the nightclub called The White Countess. As the sounds of explosions from Japanese air raids echo in the distance during their final meeting, Jackson notes grimly, “That would be your broader canvas.” Casablanca’s Laszlo and this Matsuda are two sides of the same coin: both are ideologues and both would be regarded by their side as heroes for their dedication to their preferred abstract notions, and both are terribly concerned with the bigger picture. Indeed, Matsuda is so concerned with the bigger picture that he destroys the livelihood and home of his friend. We in the audience already know what probably awaits Matsuda in the future. Faced with the alternative of becoming like Matsuda, isolationism does indeed seem to be a very practical policy.