Set in dangerous Shanghai in the mid-1930s, Kazuo Ishiguro's overheated screenplay throws together a pair of lost souls who seem to have fled the lurid pages of a Danielle Steel novel. Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) is a rudderless former American diplomat who's lost it all his family, his eyesight, and his dream of world peace. After Versailles, we come to learn, Jackson worked with the Wilson administration to help establish the League of Nations. Well, it is now 1936, his daughter has died, and things aren't going so well geopolitically. Meanwhile, Countess Sophia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson), late of Czar Nick's inner circle, finds herself a poverty-stricken exile in Shanghai. She's still sleek, well-mannered, and mighty easy on the eyes, but the Russian Revolution has reduced her to unspeakable toil as a dime-a-dance girl and occasional prostitute who must support her own little daughter, Katya (Madeleine Potter), and a roomful of nattering, ungrateful relatives. These include the shockingly wrinkled Redgrave sisters, Vanessa and Lynn. In honor of the occasion, they've been outfitted in shabby gray rags.
In other words, what we have here is the old "against the background of world events" trope. Imperial Japan sits on China's doorstep while Mao and the Reds cook up some plans of their own all of which gives tormented idealist Jackson ulcers. And because Joe Stalin won't invite our Sophia to join the Supreme Soviet anytime soon, the fallen countess is plumb out of luck too.
What to do? Why, open a nightclub. What else?
Novelist Ishiguro (who wrote The Saddest Music in the World and the original novel for The Remains of the Day) has an irrepressibly emblematic turn of mind, so when his bereft hero decides to try the saloon business, he actually has much more in store. In the guise of serving jazz and cocktails to an international clientele of rogues, decadents, and voluptuaries, the ruminative Jackson really means to create his own microcosm, a mini-League of Nations that he can control and contain, lest the real world suddenly crash in through the door. Jackson has been blinded, remember, and any college sophomore in the house can tell you his condition has a double (or triple) implication here. At the same time, Jackson keeps the cool-eyed Sophia clearly in the picture. She is, after all, the embodiment of his internal vision "a perfect balance between the erotic and the tragic," or some such bookish nonsense. In any event, she becomes the alluring, well-paid centerpiece of the joint, complete with a full stock of highly symbolic yearnings. (By the way, owner and employee do not sleep together. They don't even see each other outside of Jackson's sociopolitical cocoon the club he calls "The White Countess.")
That the film borrows so heavily from Casablanca and Cabaret, to much lesser effect, is not as irksome as its ominous airs and phony dark poetry. By the time the murky friendship between Jackson and a mysterious Japanese patron named Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada) gives way to the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, Ishiguro and Ivory have so inundated us with literature-class portents (there's even a Jewish tailor who's fled the Nazis only to find horror here too) that the whole movie seems to collapse under the weight of insistent added meanings. In the end, we get the obligatory flight through the streets as Japanese fighter planes bomb and strafe the place, and the estimable Fiennes (whose English Patient turn carried more weight) gets to blindly defy a phalanx of Japanese bayonets en route to reuniting with the woman we know he's loved all along. In the end too, we are Shanghaied by the kind of cheap emotional manipulation that Howards End and The Bostonians never stooped to. Sad to say, those who want to remember the glories of Merchant Ivory at its best might do well to skip the last chapter of the book.