The White Countess

The White Countess is a 2005 drama film directed by James Ivory and starring Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Hiroyuki Sanada, Lynn Redgrave, Allan Corduner, and Madeleine Potter. The screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro focuses on a disparate group of displaced persons attempting to survive in Shanghai in the late 1930s.

The White Countess
Original poster
Directed byJames Ivory
Produced byIsmail Merchant
Written byKazuo Ishiguro
StarringRalph Fiennes
Natasha Richardson
Vanessa Redgrave
Hiroyuki Sanada
Lynn Redgrave
Allan Corduner
Madeleine Potter
Music byRichard Robbins
CinematographyChristopher Doyle
Edited byJohn David Allen
Distributed bySony Pictures Classics
Release date
21 December 2005
Running time
135 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
United States
Box office$4,092,682 (worldwide)


Having escaped the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Countess Sofia Belinskaya is working as a taxi dancer, if not worse, in a seedy Shanghai bar in 1936 to support her family of aristocratic White émigrés, including her daughter Katya, her mother-in-law Olga, her sister-in-law Grushenka, and an aunt and uncle by marriage, Princess Vera and Prince Peter. Although employment is scarce and her meagre income is almost the family's only income, Sofia's relatives scorn her for her work and insist she keep it a secret from her child.

Sofia meets Todd Jackson, a former official of the US State Department who several years ago lost his wife and daughter in separate terrorist bombings. The bombing that killed his child also blinded him. With his job at risk and dreaming of running a nightclub, he gambles his savings on a bet at the racetrack. Winning, he opens an elegant nightclub catering to the cosmopolitan upper class and invites Sofia to be his principal hostess, an offer she accepts, and in honour of her he calls the club The White Countess. Over time, they begin to fall in love, but neither acts until the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War causes the political climate to disintegrate, followed by a mass exodus from the besieged city.



In The Making of The White Countess, a bonus feature on the DVD release of the film, production designer Andrew Sanders discusses the difficulties he had recreating 1930s Shanghai in a city where most pre-war remnants are surrounded by modern skyscrapers and neon lights. Many of the sets had to be constructed on soundstages. Also impeding him were restrictions on imports levied by the Chinese government, forcing him to make do with whatever materials he could find within the country. The film was the last for producer Ismail Merchant, who died shortly after principal photography was completed.

The film premiered at the Savannah Film Festival in Savannah, Georgia, and was shown at the Two River Film Festival in Monmouth County, New Jersey, before going into limited release in the US It opened on ten screens, and earned $46,348 on its opening weekend, ranking No. 34 among all films in release. It eventually grossed $1,669,971 in the U.S and $2,422,711 in foreign markets, for a total worldwide box office of $4,092,682.[1]

Critical reception

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 49% based on 89 reviews, and an average rating of 5.9/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "High production values and fine performances get bogged down by a lifeless story that fails to engage the viewer."[2] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 60 out of 100, based on 30 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[3]

Stephen Holden of the New York Times said, "You couldn't ask for a tonier cast than the one that gamely tries to pump oxygen into the thin, filtered air of The White Countess ... But with its tentative pace, fussy, pieced-together structure and stuffy emotional climate, [the film] never develops any narrative stamina ... [It] has the familiar Merchant-Ivory trademarks: cultivated dialogue, a keen eye for the nuances of upscale society and a sophisticated, internationalist view of class and ethnicity. What is missing from a film that wants to be an Asian Casablanca crossed with The English Patient is a racing, dramatic pulse. Its sedate tone is simply too refined for the story it has to tell. Mr. Ishiguro's prim, anemic screenplay is so lacking in drive and emotional gravitas that the actors are left with only scraps of lean dramatic meat to tear into."[4]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times stated, "Fiennes and Richardson make this film work with the quiet strangeness of their performances" and then observed, "I saw my first Merchant and Ivory film, Shakespeare Wallah, in 1965 ... Sometimes they have made great films, sometimes flawed ones, even bad ones, but never shabby or unworthy ones. Here is one that is good to better, poignant, patient, moving."[5]

Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle said of the film, "Measured and meticulous, with small patches of narrative awkwardness that are more than compensated for by rich performances, it's an appropriate finish to the 40-year partnership: a typical, above-average Merchant-Ivory film ... The movie has a slow start, but Ivory is laying in foundations for later ... Long before the climax, which is magnificent, the movie has us completely believing in the characters and their histories and marveling at their extraordinary circumstances. This is Merchant-Ivory's kind of showmanship, the unflashy adult variety of movie magic that they made their hallmark."[6]

Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times stated, "The Chekovian sight of so many Richardson-Redgraves lamenting their circumstances in heavily Russian-accented English and pining for Hong Kong, where their former social glory will be restored, makes you wonder if they'd have been better off in a stage production of Three and a Half Sisters: The Twilight Years ... The White Countess takes place in a fascinating time and place, rife with conflict and turmoil. But to watch Fiennes float (and Richardson trudge) through it all, absorbed in themselves and their own private misery, is to wish they'd started falling earlier, if only to knock some sense into them."[7]

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone rated the film three out of four stars and commented, "The convoluted screenplay ... makes it hard for director James Ivory to maintain an emotional through-line. But Richardson ... 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 ... The White Countess is a stirring tribute to Merchant, a true builder of dreams in an industry now sorely bereft of his unique spirit."[8]

Justin Chang of Variety stated, "The threads come together ever so slowly in The White Countess ... This final production from the team of James Ivory and the late Ismail Merchant is itself adrift in more ways than one, with a literate but meandering script ... that withholds emotional payoffs to an almost perverse degree. Name cast and typically tasteful presentation should spark biz among sophisticated older viewers, though likely a fraction of what the Merchant Ivory pedigree used to command theatrically."[9]

Awards and nominations

John Bright was nominated for the Satellite Award for Best Costume Design, and Michael Barry, Martin Czembor, Ludovic Hénault, and Robert Hein were nominated for the Satellite Award for Best Sound.

See also


  1. "The White Countess (2005)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 17 September 2017.
  2. "The White Countess (2005)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved 13 March 2018.
  3. "The White Countess Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 13 March 2018.
  4. Holden, Stephen (21 December 2005). "Big Trouble in Prewar China". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 September 2017.
  5. Ebert, Roger (20 December 2005). "The White Countess Movie Review (2005)". Retrieved 17 September 2017.
  6. LaSalle, Mick (13 January 2006). "Merchant-Ivory's final film a refined delight. Naturally". SFGate. Retrieved 17 September 2017.
  7. Chocano, Carina (21 December 2005). "The blind leading the blind". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 17 September 2017.
  8. Travers, Peter (21 December 2005). "The White Countess". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 17 September 2017.
  9. Chang, Justin (27 November 2005). "Review: 'The White Countess'". Variety. Retrieved 17 September 2017.
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