Bryce Dallas Howard as Grace Margaret Mulligan
Isaach De Bankolé as Timothy
Danny Glover as Wilhelm
Willem Dafoe as Grace’s Father
Jeremy Davies as Niels
Lauren Bacall as Mam
Chloë Sevigny as Philomena
Jean-Marc Barr as Mr. Robinsson
Udo Kier as Mr. Kirspe
Michaël Abiteboul as Thomas
Rik Launspach as Stanley Mays
Geoffrey Bateman as Bertie
Suzette Llewellyn as Flora
Virgile Bramly as Edward
Charles Maquignon as Bruno
Directed by Lars von Trier
Lars von Trier’s follow-up to “Dogville” uses many of the same tricks, but his obvious bigotry towards the U.S. and the significantly weaker cast makes his revolutionary ideas a harder sell the second time around.
After leaving Dogville behind, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her father (Willem Dafoe) arrive in Manderlay, an Alabama plantation where slaves have been held for seventy years after it was outlawed. With the help of her father’s gangsters, Grace offers the slaves freedom and democracy, but soon learns that the dynamics and politics of Manderlay make things not entirely what they seem.
Denmark’s most controversial filmmaker Lars von Trier has returned with the second chapter of his diatribe against America, this time focusing on the treatment of African-Americans by their adoptive country since the end of slavery. Those who don’t relish hearing the “N-word” being bandied about for two hours may immediately write this off as a racist piece of work, although it’s obvious by the end that it was meant more as an indictment against white America, or at least one has to hope that’s the case.
Using the same filmmaking techniques as “Dogville”–the movie is performed on a huge minimally decorated soundstage like a stage play, allowing for more impressive overhead shots–“Manderlay” begins where the previous movie ended with Grace, her father and their thugs arriving at Manderlay. Grace is shocked by what she sees and makes it her duty to free the slaves and help turn the plantation into a democratic state where things are done more equitable. Of course, her father is skeptical, remembering what happened to the pet bird she tried to free from its cage, but Grace is determined, and she tries to get along. Her biggest challenge comes in the form of Timothy, a non-African slave or “Munsie” who elevates himself above the rest of the simple folk, and makes her task more difficult. Of course, because this is Lars von Trier’s America, you know that Grace’s efforts will go wrong, and it will be another humiliating lesson for Grace, just like Dogville. Sure enough, every thing she tries to do backfires with devastating results.
Maybe it’s a blessing that “Manderlay” falls short of the three-hour running time of von Trier’s previous effort, because it’s a lot more talking, relying more on its distinctive voice-over, once again read by John Hurt. von Trier’s clever script lacks the subtlety of “Dogville,” leaving far less open for interpretation, while dishing out the same amount of intensity and twists. Because the movie is made by a white director, parts might come across as racist, but the fact that strong black males like Isaach De Bankolé’s Timothy and Danny Glover’s wise elder William are the ones who stand up to Grace soften the blow a bit.
Grace’s experiences in Dogville clearly toughened her up, but it’s harder to feel sympathetic for her, which tends to hurt the movie. Bryce Dallas Howard may just be too young and inexperienced to pull off this sort of role, at least when compared to Nicole Kidman, who played Grace so well in the first movie. Howard’s Grace comes across as naïve and too clueless about the real world to take on such a huge responsibility, so she’s less convincing although it’s a daring career move for Howard to get involved in a few scenes that more experienced actresses would probably have balked at doing. The rest of the cast is good, but not nearly as strong as in “Dogville,” although Willem Dafoe does a good job replacing James Caan, in what becomes a far less significant role.
Just when you think von Trier has gone as far afield as possible, everything is pulled together with a great ending that sums up his theory, before once again kicking into Bowie’s “Young Americans” this time played over images of racism, poverty and other issues faced by this country’s black population, not to mention a well placed dig at our president. Unlike “Dogville,” which could have taken place anywhere, von Trier’s ire seem a bit displaced because he’s never made the effort to come to our country to learn the truth. Because of this, it’s hard to take the message of his cinematic thesis too seriously, and it just comes across like he’s trying to stir things up.
The Bottom Line:
“Dogville” was fairly ingenious in its depiction of the treatment of immigrants in America, but von Trier’s second attempt fails to hit the mark since the techniques used to make “Dogville” so unique aren’t as interesting or special when the subject matter isn’t as strong. Like the director’s previous work, the subject matter is likely to polarize audiences, but it’s more likely that it’s just going to turn everyone off.
Manderlay opens on Friday at the IFC Center in New York and in other select cities next Friday, February 3.