Blinded US ex-diplomat Todd Jackson (Fiennes) isolates himself in decadent '30s Shanghai and creates his ideal bar. Fascinated by Sofia (Richardson), a refugee Russian aristocrat brought low, he engages her as the hostess of his club and finds himself drawn into tragedy, love and intrigue.
The last in the long, distinguished line of Merchant-Ivory collaborations — Ismail Merchant having died during production — is, as you would expect, a handsome, well-acted period evocation with attractive credentials. The original screenplay is by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (whose Remains Of The Day was turned into one of the highlights in James Ivory’s oeuvre) and its moody melodrama is clearly indebted to Casablanca.
There is nothing ‘bad’ here — indeed, it has moments of poignancy, a striking climax (the blind Jackson feeling his way through a panicked populace and invading Japanese soldiers) and a lovely dramatic ending, although the political, Cabaret-flavoured intrigue is sketchy and Sofia’s loyalty to her cruelly ungrateful, la-di-dah in-laws is incomprehensible.
Trouble is, James Ivory just doesn’t do sleaze. The tawdry milieu of taxi dancers, pleasure-seekers and spies rings hollow. You’ve never seen such well-scrubbed tarts and sailors, while the White Countess bar — far from the dive of Jackson’s poetic fantasy, with its own energy and character — looks like an RKO set where Fred and Ginger should come twirling down the staircase any second.
So it falls heavily to Fiennes to ground the film and he is thankfully impeccable, inching from bitter bereavement and deluded escapism to emotional rescue.
A potentially compelling situation doesnt really come off, though Fiennes and Richardson (at her best) are moving.