One of my most anticipated years and yet a film that most people have never heard of, "Manderlay" is Lars von Trier's follow-up to the absolutely amazing "Dogville." While "Manderlay" pales in comparison in every way to its predecessor, Trier still manages to engage the audience in a way few directors can.
Bryce Dallas Howard takes on the difficult role of Grace - difficult because the character was previously acted by Nicole Kidman of all people. Kidman, a hard act to follow, was stunning as the good-willing-yet-ultimately-damaging protagonist, and frankly, Howard struggles. Had I not known the film was a sequel, I would have never guessed Howard was playing the same character, as Howard's version of Grace is much more childish and naive. The way she talks and the way she sounds just doesn't live up to the expectations set by Kidman. Nevertheless, as the movie goes on, she establishes a new Grace, and it works satisfactorly enough.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the movie is the changes to the screenplay; the dialogue exchanges between Grace and her father (Willem Dafoe), the only two returning characters from "Dogville," are so drastically different and modernistic that they seems completely out of place. Again, as the film goes on things settle down, or we get used to it, but Trier definitely suffered some consistency issues when writing said screenplay.
There are other things that can be compared to "Dogville," all of which fall into an inferior light. The set, while still limited to a stage, is not utilized nearly as much, as this was one of the most unique and intriguing elements of the original. Trier only really takes advantage of the strange set (minimalist walls and props) during the shower scene, but the movie this time around looks more like it is placed on a cheap stage rather than on an intentionally simple one.
Whereas the first movie was about small town America and the misguided dynamics of its people (I think), this one focuses on slavery, at least on the surface. Grace, fleeing Dogville with her father, comes to a small plantation where several blacks have been kept as slaves, even though slavery was abolished eighty years earlier. Grace, determined to spread her ideals of democracy and freedom to this "third world country," frees them, but her intent is misguided. All of the ex-slaves know only how to be slaves, and do not know how to function in the real world, nor do they want to. So, Grace sets up a system of self-education, hoping to someday teach them to think the way she does.
The concept is intriguing, and, as with all of Trier's films, certainly thought-provoking. The parallels he makes with modern day America are terrific, even though if on the surface the film seems like something else entirely. Though not as captivating as "Dogville," "Manderlay" is still an intelligent movie with decent acting and a good message.
Shorter than "Dogville" and perhaps a bit more focused, Trier has succeeded once again, but this seems like a much less ambitious film than some of his previous efforts. Perhaps it is simply that the novelty that was once unique in "Dogville" is no longer new, or perhaps that the story isn't quite as powerful, but "Manderlay" feels like a weaker sibling of its predecessor. Nevertheless, if you liked "Dogville" then you will enjoy "Manderlay."
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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