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Manderlay Review

Set after Lars Von Trier’s earlier film Dogville Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) traveling with her gangster father through the South comes across a plantation where slavery still exists–in 1933. She insists that the white estate owners free their slaves and then sticks around to make sure that their freedoms aren’t taken away again. But Grace in attempting to teach democracy and self-reliance to the former slaves meets some major obstacles and soon finds herself wielding the whip hand herself. Grace comes off as a well-meaning spoiled brat whose freeing of the slaves is compared by her father (Willem Dafoe in a brief appearance) to the time she set her pet bird free as a child and it froze to death. Howard taking over the role of Grace from Nicole Kidman does her best but with the flatfooted awkward dialogue she is forced to utter and such contrived situations she never really connects with the audience except in a nearly wordless scene where she has to execute a former slave. Isaach de Bankole as the most defiant of the slaves–and with whom Grace becomes obsessed–mostly just glowers. Danny Glover on the other hand as an elderly “pleasin’ slave” brings a rare spark of humanity to the film. Lauren Bacall is completely unrecognizable in the thankless role of “Mam ” the ancient plantation owner. John Hurt provides the voiceover lending the whole production an air of dignity it wouldn’t otherwise have. Von Trier also wrote this film and his goal is obviously to challenge our ideas about the nature of oppression democracy and charity. But he so fails to capture the audience’s interest sitting through the film is a chore. Manderlay is essentially a filmed stage play with the starkest of sets. There’s no striving for realism at all. The film is monochromatic and washed out with little visual appeal. One of the few cinematic touches is a dust storm that strikes the plantation. The actors are encouraged to give one-note flat line readings and the whole thing comes off as an amateur video someone made for their local community theater. Assuming you reach “Chapter Eight ” you’ll never be gladder than when you see the note in the chapter title: “In which Grace settles with Manderlay and the film ends.”

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