The White Countess


The White Countess

Critics Consensus

High production values and fine performances get bogged down by a lifeless story that fails to engage the viewer.



Total Count: 89


Audience Score

User Ratings: 20,228
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Movie Info

After losing his wife, daughter, and eyesight in the violent political unrest of 1930s Shanghai, former diplomat Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) develops an obsession with creating the perfect, most comfortable and elegant bar. As he explores seedy dives, searching for the one he could convert, he meets a White Russian refugee (Natasha Richardson) who was once a countess but now works as a taxi driver and sometimes prostitute in order to support her late husband's family. Todd takes her on as a partner and names the bar The White Countess, though he does not know where his dealings with the shadowy woman will lead.


Critic Reviews for The White Countess

All Critics (89) | Top Critics (30) | Fresh (44) | Rotten (45)

  • Ishiguro is a wonderful novelist, but perhaps not a natural-born screenwriter. The White Countess feels schematic and dramatically inert. Ivory, for all the acting talent at his disposal, finds plenty of style in prewar Shanghai, but its pulse eludes him.

    Mar 13, 2018 | Full Review…

    David Ansen

    Top Critic
  • It's a pretty journey, even if it is far too talky and emotionally distant to really work.

    Feb 10, 2006 | Rating: 3/5
  • A tale well told, a look at history in the making and those being shaken in the process.

    Feb 3, 2006 | Rating: B | Full Review…

    Tom Long

    Detroit News
    Top Critic
  • A tedious, overblown bit of business.

    Feb 3, 2006 | Rating: 2/4
  • The White Countess, although it has its share of Masterpiece Theatre moments, is another film to remind us just how cosmopolitan is the Merchant-Ivory filmography.

    Jan 27, 2006 | Rating: 3/5
  • Despite its brilliant evocation of this great city at this most provocative time in history, the movie just gets sillier and sillier.

    Jan 20, 2006 | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for The White Countess

  • Jul 15, 2011
    A blind American diplomat and a exiled Russian countess join forces to build a jazz nightclub in Shanghai in the period leading up to the Second Sino-Japanese War. Typical of a Merchant/Ivory production, the set and costume design is lush and colorful, a work of art by itself. But also typical of their work, there is an awful lot of talk; in fact, most of the conflict in this film takes place in the past, the characters revealing tortured bits about themselves rather than the suspense created from watching conflict happen. The only scenes in which this flaw is not true are in the third act, far too late. The highlights of the film are the performances by the brooding Ralph Fiennes and the glamorous Natasha Richardson. Both actors create sharp characters, and they make the too-talky exposition compelling just by their presence. I think that many American audiences, many of whom haven't been exposed to Chinese history, will get lost, unable to place the political turmoil that backdrops the film's action. <i>The White Countess</i> is set in that odd time between the wars, and there are few clues to ground the setting. What is more, many Americans may not realize what a diverse, bustling metropolis Shanghai was at this time and why it is conceivable that the Russian aristocracy would be exiled there. Hopefully this film is an impetus to pick up a history book or two (if you actually go beyond Wikipedia, I recommend <i>The Soong Dynasty</i> by Sterling Seagrave). Overall, <i>The White Countess</i> is by no means a great film, but it has a lot to offer for the right audience.
    Jim H Super Reviewer
  • Aug 05, 2010
    The last collaboration between Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, the White Countess is far from perfect. However, like all their prior films, it has a standout cast, impeccable production values, and beautiful photography that captures the era perfectly. While some what of a let-down as far as the story goes, it still has some nice moments, and if you're a fan of period romances and Merchant/Ivory films in general, you'll want to see this one, too. Fiennes does a good job in his role as the blind diplomat, and the late Natasha Richardson also give a multi-layered performance as the countess. It stands in the shadows of their better works, and can't really stand up to scrutiny as far as the pacing and script and narrative. It tried and failed to be a latter-day Casablanca, but it's still a finely crafted film.
    Mark K Super Reviewer
  • Jan 20, 2010
    So there I was sittin on the couch scrolling through the guide when I see Ralph Fiennes. Automatically I hit record. I had barley any Idea wht this movie would be about. but, It had Ralph Fiennes and Jazz. Surpirse Surpirse, I LOOOVED IT!! Fiennes is without a doubt one of our greatest actros of the century! I cannot believe that He has yet to win an Oscar. I was kind hoping from more romance between Ralph and Natasha Richardson (Who was amazing as well) but thats ok, Such a great movie with some very good performances!
    Morgan S Super Reviewer
  • Jul 15, 2008
    <i>''We all have to fall in love from time to time... To feed our daughters, and our mothers. And sisters.'' </i> Set in 1930s Shanghai, where a blind American diplomat develops a curious relationship with a young Russian refugee who works odd -- and sometimes illicit -- jobs to support members of her dead husband's aristocratic family. <b>Ralph Fiennes</b>: Todd Jackson <b>Natasha Richardson</b>: Countess Sofia Belinskya <i>Countess</i> may be very, very slow. but its wonderfully rich visuals and smashing English performances make it the perfect patient man's period film, As mentioned, you must have a lot of glorious patience to make it to that fulfilling conclusion. Marveled at the cinematography, the great sets, the muted and beautiful fliar of colours. This Ishiguro story is set in mid-to-late '30s in Shanghai. Ralph Fiennes plays a blind American, Todd Jackson, an ex-diplomat who wants to get away from politics and run the nightclub of his dreams. He has the whole place mapped out in his head. Natasha Richardson as Countess Sofia Belinskya is a high-class escort-service type woman working in a lower-class bar who unselfishly sacrifices her dignity to help support her unappreciative family. Todd and Sofia meet one day in that bar, he is very impressed with her, and later hires her to run his new place, called The White Countess, hence the film's clever title. Along the way, Todd meets a Japanese man Mr. Matsuda, who we find out isn't the altogether nice guy we thought he was, as it's revealed trouble always follows him. The themes of isolation and alienation are rampant in this film and occur on many levels. Sophia is shut off from her family and eventually abandoned because of her disgraceful job. Jackson is blind physically and mentally from the real world. They are strangers in a foreign country, a country whose sole foreign policy for the past several centuries has been isolationism, they built a wall to keep people out. These instances are not simply strewn about but are intricately woven into the plot to create a deeper, more meaningful story. <i>The White Countess</i> explores devastation and new hope, heartbreak and new love, and shows us the hopelessness of walls and cages. We can always close our eyes but that doesn't mean everything around us will disappear. In the end, this drama comes to life as the Japanese overrun the city and everyone flees for their life. Sofia's family tries to leave without her. The countess desperately goes after them because that family includes her precious young daughter. Fiennes realizes, at the last minute, he doesn't want to live life without Sofia and she he tries to find her among all the chaos. It's a very suspenseful, very positive ending. <i>White Countess</i> is underrated, under-publicized and a beautifully executed piece. Reminded me of the beautiful <i>Painted Veil</i>.
    Alexander C Super Reviewer

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