Danish director Lars Von Trier continues his Deep South adventure with this fable about race, power, isolation and freedom.
Like 2003's Dogville, there is something refreshingly literal about Von Trier's screenplay. That's not to say it lacks subtext - it is abundant - but at times its political convictions are presented like a series of political soundbites. While the blank theatre-style set is perhaps not used as effectively as it was in Dogville, the technique again adds weight to the bluntness of the key polemics.
Von Trier's magic is in tackling weighty subject matter in a very watchable way. Dancer In The Dark, for example, probably his most powerful deconstruction of the American Dream, showed us a new twist on the classical Hollywood musical; and without patronising its heritage it made a pertinent political point. Like that masterpiece, Manderlay demands the audience leave their expectations at the door whilst offering a reasonably straightforward narrative containing some satisfying plot twists and a surprising amount of dark humour. It may be less genre-specific than Dancer In The Dark, but like all this ex-Dogme director's latter films, it is accessible, neat and tight, and fleet of foot.
Von Trier presents yet another spiky woman-in-peril. Bryce Dallas Howard takes over from Nicole Kidman as the idealistic Grace. She turns out to be the ideal choice, too - there's a broadness to the shoulders and a steeliness to the eyes of this stronger, wiser heroine. Those who have Von Trier marked down as a misogynist will be pleased (or possibly disappointed) to hear that this troubled heroine is his most powerful and least set-upon to date. John Hurt, Chloe Sevigny, Jeremy Davies, Udo Kier, Lauren Bacall and Von Trier regular Jean-Marc Barr all return for another round of selfless bit parts.
Those concerned with the idea of watching a movie without a set shouldn't worry - it's practically unnoticeable after a time, thanks largely to the quality and intensity of the drama. This is classy, intelligent film-making from a talented and consistent auteur.