A bare-bones soundstage, a swipe at US policy, an embattled ginger heroine... Yes, it's the return of Lars von Trier with part two in the trilogy begun by Dogville. Alas, even radical Danish auteurs can fall victim to the law of diminishing returns: like so many follow-ups, Manderlay struggles to recapture its predecessor's startling novelty. Nevertheless, there are still provocations to ponder as gangster's daughter Grace (The Village's Bryce Dallas Howard, stepping in for Nicole Kidman) attempts to reform a community of black slaves.
Set in 1933, the plot picks up where Dogville ended, with Grace and her father (Willem Dafoe replacing James Caan) heading south. Reaching Alabama, they discover slavery still thrives at the Manderlay cotton plantation. Appalled, Grace decides to stay on, free the black residents and teach them about democracy. But replacing the old system isn't so simple, and Grace's good intentions eventually reap hellish consequences.
"WON'T PLAY WELL AT THE WHITE HOUSE"
Like Dogville, Manderlay has much to say about today's world, offering a statement on nation-building that won't play well at the White House. But while the content feels relevant, the ironic, Brechtian style seems like yesterday's news. Individual scenes strike a nerve (the plantation's whites in blackface, the execution of a thief) but don't add up to a dramatically satisfying whole. Despite her focused performance, Howard comes across as too young and raw to adopt Kidman's mantle. But at least she's got her foot on the gas. Right up until the closing images of real-life racial oppression - by far Manderlay's most powerful sequence - there's a troubling sense that von Trier is simply going through the motions.