The White Countess

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(2005) ★★★★

BBC2: Saturday 15 August, 10.40pm

Shanghai in the 1930s is a decadent boomtown, and the invading Japanese are advancing. In the international settlement, widowed Russian aristocrat Natasha Richardson provides for her ungrateful family by working at a teahouse dancehall. The shame! They despise her for it. Sensing she’s trapped between the erotic and the tragic, disillusioned American ex-diplomat Ralph Fiennes – who happens to be blind – thinks Natasha will make the perfect hostess for his new nightclub. It will be a haven from chaos, a jazz-and-gin hideaway. An alluring fantasia on a vanished world, the final collaboration of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory is a handsome affair imagined by Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of The Remains of the Day. Beautifully shot and scored (by Chris Doyle and Richard Robbins, respectively), and full of splendid performances, it’s an absorbing drama carrying odd echoes of both Doctor Zhivago and Empire of the Sun. And there’s a brief but beautiful animated insert when Natasha’s daughter looks through a kaleidoscope.

Certificate: PG

Duration: 136min

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