Wednesday, 4 March 2009
the White Countess
20.10. I was not in the mood to give undivided attention to work, and after a mixture of unsweetened strawberries and sliced pear, sat down on the floor of the front room to watch the last film production of James Ivory with Ismail Merchant before his death in 2005. I am puzzled why I did not see this bitter sweet film in the theatre or that its existence had not previously registered. The White Countess is the name of a club established by the role of Ralph Fiennes in Shanghai in 1936 after his diplomatic and subsequent political advisory role to an international trading company ends, following the death of his daughter who he has raised as a single parent, and his own blindness, after being caught up in terrorist activity.
20.30 The White Countess is also the daughter of a post revolution Russian Prince Émigré, the Countess Sophia, who in order to provide for the family, and her daughter, works in a sleazy dance with options nite spot where she encounters, and the helps Fiennes avoid being mugged, and in return he offers her the position of making his dream of running a sophisticated night club into a reality. The films has three issues which come together as the story reaches its climax. There is the sense of guilt and failure felt by Fiennes over the death of his daughter and which leads him to submerge himself in an alcohol haze of the Shanghai night life. There is the relationship of the Countess with members of her family who include the Redgrave sisters, Vanessa and Lynn, and her sister in law who covets the care of the daughter of the countess. There is also the political dimension with the club being used by a Japanese diplomat and fixer to pave the way for the invasion of China, in a situation where the Chinese authorities regard Fiennes as a good Chinese speaking friend. Step inside some of the situations in this film and you are sliced open through heart and stomach. I felt as I had when in the film of Dr Zhivago, Rita Tushingham describes how her mother let go of her hand in the midst of the revolution and she was never to see her again, or the stoicism of his wife when she leaves for the USA without him because he has fallen romantically and passionately in love with another, or when he nearly meets his love again after the upheavals, but dies before they can be reunited. The White Countess does not have the epic and enduring quality of Dr Zhivago but it adds to my experience of what it must have been like to be forced from everything that gives you identity, to be forced to do things that numbed and sickened until you were hardened into a void filled shell.
One of my constant dilemmas, is that viewed collectively the Russian aristocracy thought little of those they used and exploited to maintain their power, wealth and lifestyle, but no different from the ruling classes before the French, Chinese and other revolutions throughout time, and there is sympathy and understanding for why the people rose up, and then behaved as they did, Then you look at the individual lives of those who survived, and some who did not, and at those who replaced them and you wish there was another way.