Last week my wife and I went to the cinema to see The White Countess. For those who are yet to see it, then I strongly recommend the film. Indeed, I would quite happily sit through it again to catch some of the deeper nuances, which I may well have missed the first time around.
The White Countess was written as an original screenplay by the writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, whose previous film success was from the novel, Remains of the Day.
The story is about an American called Jackson, living in Shanghai during the late 1930s. He is an ex-diplomat who was blinded during a terrorist explosion in which he also lost his daughter. He builds a nightclub (called The White Countess) in which he hides away from the world outside. Various components of the nightclub make it a tightly controlled miniature of the world at large, all carefully managed by Jackson. The club revolves around his main hostess, the Countess Sofia, one of a family of impecunious Russian aristocrats who have fled their home country. The tension within the club is reflected by the inevitable, yet restrained and almost denied, romance that grows between Jackson and the Countess Sofia. Various other facets make the story an interesting cameo on the plight of refugees, both Russian and Jewish, as well as the tense relationship between the Chinese and the Japanese prior to the second Sino-Japanese War in 1937.
What intrigued me the most was the concept of building a world (in this case the nightclub) in which the architect hides away from reality, whilst the very world he has built continues to occupy its own place within reality. It struck me that many of us have similar defensive mechanisms by which we retreat from the real world. For me it is our home in the Yorkshire Dales. Some of our friends run away to the North York Moors, others to their boat. In each case, we carry with us only those elements we wish to be a part of our alternative lives. We leave behind all that causes us unrest, work or displeasure. No longer are we troubled by time, the imposition of deadlines, the need to make a living or to pay bills etc. We live a fantasy life albeit within a real world and on terms that do not make demands upon us. It is as though we take off the mantle of responsibility and concern when we step through our own version of C J Lewis’s wardrobe.
The White Countess is a splendid reflection of the need many of us feel in respect to controlling our environment and hiding from reality. By doing so, we remain sane and more capable of coping with the stresses of the real world. Perhaps it is true that, from time to time, we all need, in individualistic ways, our own personal Narnia.