Manderlay (15)

Written and Directed by Lars von Trier
Screening at FACT from 12th May 2006

Reviewed by Adam Ford

What a crushing disappointment! Looking back, I suppose it was a tough act to follow. 2003’s ‘Dogville’ was such a shock to the system, such a feast of philosophy, such an apocalyptic allegory, that its first sequel was always going to seem pointless by comparison. So don’t compare them, Manderlay is still pretty good, and definitely worth seeing on its own merits.

Having torched the town of Dogville and its wretched inhabitants, Grace (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) and her gangster father (Willem Defoe) set off on the road to Manderlay, where blacks are still kept as slaves by their cruel white mistress (Lauren Bacall). Against her father’s advice, Grace orders the gang to take over the town, fling open the gates, and set the slaves free into Depression era America. But maybe it’s not as simple as that. At least you knew where you were with slavery. And what’s this ‘freedom’ thing anyway?

Howard is a bizarre choice for the lead role. She’s about a decade younger than Kidman was, and plays the character with a childish naivety that Grace should surely have left far behind, what with burning a whole town to the ground after she’d been held captive and raped and everything. One scene - which involved the actual killing of a donkey – was cut after protests by animal rights campaigners. But several others must have been chopped too, because there are several references to events and conversations we didn’t see, and this film is a whole forty minutes shorter than its more rounded predecessor.

In the plus column, Manderlay is hugely provocative, fearlessly deconstructing power relations and social control. There are some fascinating turns amongst the large cast, including Isaach De Bankolé as ‘proudly nigger’ Timothy, and Danny Glover as the mysterious Wilhelm. Von Trier has kept faith with the strangely beautiful minimalist staging of ‘Dogville’, and John Hurt’s richly voiced narration gives the whole thing an unsettling storybook feel. I’ll definitely get it out on DVD, if only to work out what where people I know fit into the rigid hierarchy of ‘Mam’s Law’. But I’m not going to build my hopes up for ‘Wasington’ – the typo-resembling final part of this ‘Land of Opportunities’ trilogy. That way I won’t be disappointed.

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