Danish auteur Lars von Trier has returned with Manderlay, the follow-up to his 2003 masterwork Dogville and second film in his ‘U, S and A’ trilogy, a series of damning indictments about the state of current American society. Von Trier is capable of whipping up adulation and criticism in equal measure, and he is frequently taken to task for making movies about a country he’s never visited.
He’s also notoriously difficult to work with and, following a rumoured fallout with Nicole Kidman, an entirely new cast is present, with Willem Dafoe stepping into James Caan’s shoes and relative unknown Bryce Dallas Howard taking over as the lead, Grace. What is preserved is what caught the eye in Dogville, namely the tiny theatre set, with its minimalist props and scenery stencilled out in white lines on a black floor.
Manderlay picks up almost exactly where Dogville left off. Grace and her father (Dafoe) have left the ruined town behind them and gone in search of new stomping grounds. On their journey they come across the plantation of Manderlay, where slavery continues to exist despite having been outlawed seventy years ago. Affronted by this injustice and eager to wield her new power, Grace frees the slaves and incarcerates the family who had been abusing them.
At the request of Wilhelm (Danny Glover), the oldest of the slaves, she stays around to help them through their first harvest and educate them in the meanings of freedom, democracy, and the American way of life. However, as you might expect, things don’t exactly go according to plan, and every time she tries to help she just makes matters worse.
The comparisons with Dogville are obvious and unending. As mentioned, it’s the ‘theatre on film’ style that initially catches the eye with its harsh lighting and stark contrasts, and this glaring device combines with a rather contrived plot opening to produce a bit of a grating beginning. But gradually it fades from prominence as, just as in Dogville, the compelling characters and horrible, unfolding drama take a grip.
Once again von Trier uses his minimal set beautifully to capture multiple situations at once, and some brilliant performances have been coaxed out. Willem Dafoe and Danny Glover take the chance to shine, and Isaach de Bankol excels as the brooding, enigmatic Timothy, though it’s a shame that Kidman couldn’t reprise her role as Grace. John Hurt also makes a welcome return, and his cheery, matter-of-fact voiceover describing the bleakest of events adds some welcome comic touches.
However, the real point of it all is the politics. Throughout von Trier fires off thinly veiled criticisms of current US foreign policy, while posing questions about the subjective nature of morality and the high price of individual liberty. It is these questions that are the real meat of the film and, though Manderlay is more intent on posing them than saying what the right answer is, von Trier’s feelings come through loud and clear. As usual, his blunt, provocative way of making a point is bound to divide opinion but, whatever your take on his politics, this is thoughtful, gritty and engaging cinema, and surely not to be missed.