This romantic drama, set in China in the mid-1930s, focuses on Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson), a Russian countess who supports her exiled family by working as a club dancer and prostitute. She finds an unlikely savior in Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), a blind American diplomat determined to open a nightclub in Shanghai with the countess as his hostess and untouchable love object. With the threat of invasion by Japan, Jackson sees his club as an unofficial League of Nations. The convoluted screenplay by Remains of the Day novelist Kazuo Ishiguro makes it hard for director James Ivory to maintain an emotional through-line. But Richardson — acting with her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, who plays her aunt, and her aunt Lynn Redgrave, who plays her mother — finds the story's grieving heart. Fiennes is her match in soulful artistry. As the last film from the legendary team of Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant, who died in May, The White Countess is a stirring tribute to Merchant, a true builder of dreams in an industry now sorely bereft of his unique spirit.
From The Archives Issue 355: October 29, 1981