Manderlay [DVD] 
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Controversial experimental drama written and directed by Lars von Trier, exploring slavery and prejudice in the Deep South of the 1930s. Arriving on the cotton plantation Manderlay, fugitive Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), her father (Willem Dafoe) and their mob of gangsters find that slavery has been allowed to continue. Freeing the slaves, Grace tries to teach them the rudiments of democracy and self-reliance, but soon comes to realise that she is merely imposing her own values on a culture of which she has little or no understanding. The cast also includes Danny Glover, Lauren Bacall, Jeremy Davies and Chloë Sevigny.
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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.
"Manderlay" expores the issue of freeing a captive-bred bird - it's not designed to live in the outside world - and how this issue applies to the freed slaves. Dallas Howard gives an excellent performance and you soon stop wondering how Kidman would have played each scene. Other excellent performances come from Ruben Brinkman and Danny Glover.
The staging of "Manderlay" is the same as that of "Dogville" - a sound-stage with a very minimalist set and painted lettering to designate what things are and painted lines to indicate walls. It works exceptionally well and the very clever use of lighting and wind-machines brings more life to the movie than you would get in a theatre using a similar staging of the story. The lack of set gives the actors a real challenge and their performance shines through.
Not a light film for Sunday-afternoon viewing - "Manderlay" is dark and bitter and leaves a lasting impression.
The film is based on the paradoxes involved when one group attempts to impose philosophies on others, philosophies that are blinded to the power relationships that bind any socio-economic situation. In less jargonistic terms, it shows us the paradox when we say freedom for all yet that freedom enables consequences we don't like.
Grace sees an atrocity, in a liberal-minded spirit she attempts to solve the atrocity by bringing freedom to a colony of slaves still working a cotton plantation 80 years after abolition. She preaches values of freedom and democracy and attempts to teach the slaves in these principles, installing the institution of the referendum to all decisions affecting the cotton farm they now all partly own. Conflicts then ensue on two levels, conflicts between the use of the vote and the logical call of science (they set the clock according to the vote) and conflicts between the use of the vote and the emotions of morality, the referendums result in resolutions that Grace finds repulsive to her morality.
This conflict is a demonstration of the conflict between democracy and rights based legal systems now faced in the world's liberal democracies. When the mass-opinion does not accord with the rights based consensus, the dictatorship of the legal system trumps the demos. This is fundamentally a power relationship and Trier realises this brilliantly in Grace's 'humane' shooting of an old slave who the group had condemned to a death of suffering.
The film delves into the question of when a group can be free. When one group enslaves another and frees them, they will do so on their own terms. The intricate reality of this situation is that the new order will place a number of curtailments on the substantive freedom of individuals in the group and the group itself. The only way for the group to be free would be to hold power themselves, something that has not happened to this date in the scarred continent of America.
The 'puerile' critiques of this film tend to be a knowing snarl at what Lars was doing. Yet the critics who put them forward fail to see that he, however ironically, poses philosophical questions that rarely grace the silver screen. Not only that, but philosophical questions with a political reality deeply relevant as we see with the gross inequality in the United States, the hypocritical and sanctimonious positioning of western states to developing nations, and the deeply problematic subjectivist vs objectivist dilemmas that face our western nations in our lovely 'war on terror'.
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Most recent customer reviews
big names, yes, but it's dire! It's 'arty' in that it's a play on a stage they've filmed. Production costs probably less than a school play.Read more