Directed by Lars von Trier, starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Isaach De Bankolé, Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe, Jeremy Davies, Lauren Bacall, Chloë Sevigny, Jean-Marc Barr and Udo Kier.
Having received acclaim and criticism for the Nicole Kidman-starring 'Dogville', Lars von Trier continues his American trilogy with 'Manderlay', a film with plenty of interesting things to say but an exhausting way of saying them.
Taking over the roles played by Nicole Kidman and James Caan in 'Dogville', Howard and Dafoe play the idealistic Grace and her 1930s gangster father. Stopping outside a plantation in the Deep South, Grace is asked for help by the workers and, upon entering their closed world, discovers that the landowner (Bacall) is close to death.
With her gone, Grace decides to stay and 'free' the workers from their mental chains, teaching them about self-sufficiency, independence and democracy. But whether they're ready for her or she's prepared for what she'll encounter are questions that grow ever larger.
Von Trier is one of those directors who, to the viewer, seems to have actors queuing up to work with him. And in some ways it's easy to see why: shot on a soundstage with minimal props and plenty of theatre-like lines, 'Manderlay' offers all those prospects of 'brave' and 'challenging' work that actors like to queue up for.
Told in eight chapters, it mixes social commentary, politics, race and wry humour and throws some awkward questions at viewers who, like Grace, can probably convince themselves that they're doing the right thing when it's their ego getting in the way of what people really need.
At the centre of the film is the idea of 'saving people from themselves', a notion which, while sometimes well-meaning, can reduce those at the receiving end to novelties and strip them of the power to make decisions about their own lives. The story could be an allegory for the US, Iraq or Africa, and shows us that no matter how far we think we've come, some problems never change.
While the performances are excellent and the set-up becomes less noticeable as the film progresses, von Trier could have raised all his points in a much tighter and more focussed film. Told very slowly over two hours, 'Manderlay' will lose some people along the way and the audience it will reach are primarily of the same socio-economic background to begin with. It asks some big questions but won't get the range of answers the issues really merit.
The 'twist' in the film hinges on a scene involving telling the time. Ironically, this is one of those occasions when you should leave your watch at home.