Natasha Richardson plays Russian beauty Sofia, the widowed mother of a bold, inquisitive preteen daughter, Katya (excellent newcomer Madeleine Daly). Working as a taxi dancer and occasional prostitute (the latter tastefully suggested, never depicted), Sofia supports her extended family and provides the savings they'll need to flee to Hong Kong. Displaced aristocrats living in poverty, they're hardly unique in Shanghai's teeming international mix, and their days of refuge are dwindling as the invading Japanese make inroads in northern China. Although he can't physically see her, blind former diplomat Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes) finds in the voluptuous countess the perfect mix of "the erotic and the tragic" that he seeks for his glamorous nightspot. He names it the White Countess, after her, and hires her as lead hostess. Since losing his family and his sight several years earlier -- in circumstances that are revealed, with low impact, an hour and a half into the story -- the American expat has pursued his dream of creating the perfect nightclub, urged on by a mysterious Japanese businessman (Hiroyuki Sanada). With Matsuda's help, Jackson entices various of the city's factions to frequent his boite in order to up the political tension -- something the film itself doesn't achieve, despite the tumultuous historical events unfurling around its characters.
Despite his losses, Jackson regards life with a serene cheer, but, as the script is at great pains to point out, his idealism is a way of keeping out a world of hurt. His deepening feelings for Sofia shatter his protective shell, but not before the two broken hearts have danced around each other in slow, tentative circles. Sofia draws mild emotional support from her kindly Aunt Sara (Vanessa Redgrave, Richardson's real-life mother) and Uncle Peter (John Wood), but they're no match for her imperious, mean-spirited mother-in-law, Olga (Lynn Redgrave, Richardson's real-life aunt), and sister-in-law, Greshenka (Madeleine Potter). Claiming concern over Sofia's unwholesome influence, Sofia's two relatives by marriage take an increasingly possessive interest in Katya. Daly, who plays the girl, is Potter's real-life daughter, and the resemblance between them heightens the sense of Sofia's being on the outside in her own family. The Redgrave chemistry works in more subtle ways: Richardson's scenes with her mother have an unspoken tenderness, while those with her aunt resonate with the darker side of family ties.
The film's final section captures the chaos of a city, and individuals, under siege, but a tamped-down literalness keeps the story from having greater resonance. Breaking free from those constraints is the film's most exciting sequence: a bit of lovely animation depicting Katya's flight of imagination upon looking in a shadowbox. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave, Hiroyuki Sanada, Madeleine Daly, Alan Corduner, Madeleine Potter and John Wood. Directed by James Ivory. Written by Kazuo Ishiguro. Produced by Ismail Merchant. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Period romantic drama. Rated PG-13 for some violent images and thematic elements. Running time: 135 min