Manderlay was almost completely overlooked and unsupported during its miniscule U.S. theatrical release earlier this year, even though it’s the follow-up to writer/director Lars von Trier’s somewhat well-regarded Dogville. While that’s usually a sign of a weak film not worthy of release, Manderlay proves to be a hidden gem that deserves to be discovered on DVD.
Picking up directly after the events in Dogville, Manderlay follows returning heroine Grace as she travels through the 1930s Deep South with her shady father and his associates. When they come across the isolated Manderlay plantation, Grace discovers a cause for her to champion – much to the dismay of her father. As it turns out, the plantation has continued the practice of slavery 70 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and Grace makes it her mission to educate and liberate the slaves. She soon discovers she has far more to learn from the slaves than they do from her, leading to some surprising results to her liberation experiment.
While the film is a continuation of von Trier’s USA – Land of Opportunities trilogy (projected to conclude with Wasington), the principal recurring characters are not played by the same actors who originated the roles in Dogville. This may be the biggest negative perception about the film, as Dogville’s impressive Nicole Kidman is replaced by relative newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard in the lead role. To confuse matters further, new characters are played by returning actors who had different roles in Dogville, including Lauren Bacall, Chloe Sevigny, and long-time von Trier favorite, Udo Kier. The sole constant is John Hurt, once again participating as the narrator.
Surprisingly, Howard holds her own in the huge footsteps left behind by Kidman, contributing a mesmerizing and wholly believable performance as the deeply conflicted Grace. The entire movie rests squarely on her shoulders as the other players move strictly in her orbit with far smaller roles. In comparison to Kidman’s occasional histrionics, Howard delivers a more understated performance giving her character the strong center of balance necessary to anchor the cast. The only misstep in her character development occurs during an ill-advised tryst near the end of the film, and is entirely the fault of von Trier. The severity of the sequence is arguably necessary to push Grace to her inevitable breaking point, but von Trier could have handled it with far more class to avoid shaking unsuspecting viewers out of the narrative flow.
As in Dogville, the entire film is shot on a bare soundstage with only a few props to suggest the surrounding area. Most buildings are represented by lines on the floor, and non-existent doors are conveyed through pantomime when encountered. Although the staging sounds like a hokey and pretentious idea, it expertly fosters complete focus on the performances and ultimately adds to the film’s strength.
The film is a biting and insightful indictment of our country’s history of slavery, but it’s also no stretch to view this as von Trier’s slap against our ongoing modern foreign policy as we constantly attempt to interfere where we’re neither welcome nor knowledgeable. While von Trier has never visited the U.S., his outsider perspective is keenly attuned to our reality as he holds up a mirror to our faults, resulting in every aspect of the plot ringing true. Although it will never have the high profile afforded Dogville, Manderlay is the stronger film and well worth seeking out.
Written by Caballero Oscura