1933. After leaving Dogville with her gangster father (Willem Dafoe), Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) arrives in Alabama. There she finds a plantation called Manderlay where under the iron rule of Mam (Lauren Bacall), slavery has been in force since the Civil War, 70 years earlier. On arrival, Grace is horrified to see 'proudly nigger' Timothy (Isaach De Bankole) being whipped by a white overseer, and despite warnings from the old house-slave Wilhelm (Danny Glover), decides to stay to restore freedom and set things right. She discovers the plantation has been run according to guidelines from the handwritten book called 'Mam's Law', which outlines a demeaning code of conduct.
Review by Louise Keller:
Like most of Lars von Trier's works, audiences will either love or hate Manderlay. Following on from Dogville, this second film in his trilogy offers the same unique approach, being shot on a single soundstage with painted outlines that delineate boundaries both real and allegorical. The central themes of slavery and racial discrimination are explored in eight chapters, but von Trier is so intent to hammer home his point, it is always to the detriment of the characters and the plot. I was intrigued by the intensity and audaciousness of Dogville, but Manderlay feels stagey, earnest, long and pretentious. Its grainy, shaky hand-held camera-work only adds to the monotony.
Surprisingly, the replacement of Nicole Kidman by Bryce Dallas Howard is not in the least problematic. In fact, Howard has plenty of warmth and her youth works to advantage. Similarly, Willem Dafoe replaces James Caan as Grace's father. The story begins with Grace as an observer. She believes it is up to her to right a wrong, never dreaming that there is much more involved. Von Trier makes some good and thought-provoking points, but scenes like those in which the remaining white settlers are forced to paint their faces black and serve the black Americans, are almost laughable. We care little for the individual characters, and much of the action is tedious, as is John Hurt's tedious and intrusive narration, which describes in detail what characters are feeling and doing. The graphic sex scene between Isaach De Bankole's Timothy, for whom Grace harbours an attraction, does shock. Not only because of its blatant full frontal nudity, but because of the statement it makes as Timothy places a towel over Grace's face as he penetrates her.
Also shocking is the story's final twist. This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of von Trier's film, which takes the issues and turns them inside out. Though he has never travelled to the States (he has a fear of flying), he has no qualms about editorialising his views - just like his leading character of Grace, who feels as though she has the right to meddle.
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(Denmark/ Sweden/ Netherlands/ France/ Germany/ US, 2005)
CAST: Bryce Dallas Howard, Isaach De Bankolť, Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe
PRODUCER: Vibeke WindelÝv
DIRECTOR: Lars von Trier
SCRIPT: Lars von Trier
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Anthony Dod Mantle
EDITOR: Molly Malene
MUSIC: Not credited
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Peter Grant
RUNNING TIME: 139 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Dendy
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 30, 2006