Phil on Film Index

Monday, October 24, 2005

Review - Manderlay

Welcome to America. Actually, to be more accurate, welcome to Lars von Trier’s version of America. The mischievous Danish director is back with the second part of his ‘USA trilogy’, a series of films in which he aims to challenge American values and expose the nation’s perceived hypocrisy and prejudice. Manderlay is von Trier’s latest provocation, the follow-up to the mighty Dogville, and this time it’s the turn of America’s attitude to race and history of slavery to go under the microscope. Some things have remained the same since von Trier‘s last film, the action once again takes place on a single soundstage with few props and markings on the floor, and one or two of the actors from Dogville pop up again here, albeit in different roles. Unfortunately too much of Manderlay seems familiar and it ends up feeling like little more than a recycled, watered-down version of its predecessor.

The film opens impressively enough. A huge map of America fills the screen and the camera slowly picks out a convoy of cars making their way across the states, with one of these cars containing Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, replacing Nicole Kidman) and her gangster father (Willem Dafoe, replacing James Caan). They have left behind the devastation which ended Dogville and are passing through Alabama when they stop outside a small town named Manderlay. Here, Grace makes a shocking discovery.

Slavery may have been abolished 70 years previously but nobody seemed to inform the residents of Manderlay and the town is run like an old-fashioned plantation by the stern matriarch Mam (Lauren Bacall). Grace’s conscience and sense of moral indignation impels her to act. Disregarding her father’s advice to stay out of the dispute, Grace utilises the gangsters’ muscle to take control of the plantation; and it all seems to be too much for Mam who dies later that night. Grace’s father is anxious to leave but Grace decides to stay, and she convinces him to let her have a few of his foot soldiers to keep order and his personal lawyer in order to draw up contracts entitling the slaves to freedom. Grace’s plan is to stay with the slaves to help them get through the harvest and she takes it upon herself to teach them the basic tenets of democracy.

You may already expect that things don’t turn out as well as Grace would have hoped but the surprise of Manderlay is how tame it all is. Von Trier is tackling a very sensitive subject here, and he includes much more explicit sex and violence than he did in Dogville along with liberal use of the word ‘nigger’; but I never felt shocked or moved as much as I did with the first film. Everything here is a little too blunt, von Trier’s intentions are a little too obvious and everything feels a little too familiar to fully engage or surprise the viewer. Von Trier is a director who has taken a new direction with every film he has made thus far and Manderlay feels like he’s simply going over well-worn ground. Manderlay’s depiction of the race issue is incredibly trite and, as the film’s narrative follows an similar trajectory to Dogville, the action is predictable and often uninspired.

Though accused of being anti-American, Dogville was actually much more universal in its depiction of the darkness at humanity’s heart. In contrast Manderlay lays on the anti-Americanism thick with von Trier making his film a pretty overt allegory for the US occupation of Iraq. Grace is depicted as the self-appointed liberator, freeing those who perhaps don’t really want to be free - or at least aren’t ready for it. Grace is determined to plough on with her democracy lessons whether they like it or not (the slaves are hounded into the meeting hall by gunpoint) but giving them the ability to make decisions for themselves leads to disaster. The allegory is laboured and heavy-handed and only serves to burden an already unwieldy film with a layer it doesn't require.

Having said all that there are a number of things I liked about the film, notably the cast which is superb throughout. Bryce Dallas Howard had to follow an extraordinary performance from Nicole Kidman as Grace and she does well under the circumstances. Howard’s Grace is a slightly different proposition to Kidman’s, slightly softer and yet more resourceful, and she is impressive and always compelling; although she ultimately lacks the cool intelligence and emotional control of Kidman.

The supporting cast is also well chosen, with Isaach De BankolĂ© and Danny Glover the standouts. Unfortunately the characterisation is sketchy and most of the supporting roles poorly defined with few of the actors in the smaller roles managing to make an impression. John Hurt’s wry and sardonic narration is as enjoyable as ever but, in contrast to Dogville’s perfectly formed ensemble, von Trier is guilty of bringing too many ineffective characters into the mix resulting in a shapeless film which feels longer than Dogville despite running much shorter.

Manderlay never threatens to catch fire in the way Dogville did and it ranks as one of the disappointments of the year. It isn’t a terrible film by any stretch of the imagination, just an utterly mediocre one; and that’s a huge disappointment from von Trier. The director again chooses to end his film with a montage of photos depicting the dark flipside of the American dream to the sound of David Bowie’s Young Americans, but it only serves to underline that this is the first time in this mercurial filmmaker’s career that he can be accused of repeating himself. Manderlay is watchable and well-performed but ultimately a turgid and frustrating experience; and it leaves the viewer wondering whether it’s time von Trier left ‘America’ for a while.