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Summary: Manderlay is a plantation where a group of people are living as if slavery hadn't been abolished 70 years earlier. Upon leaving Dogville in 1933, Grace and her father head far south to the state of Alabama where they arrive upon the bizarre place.
Obviously not close to "Dogville" (Kidman is out of the picture, and the novelty of the Brechtian approach is now long-gone), but still a complex, difficult film that is unafraid to pose questions about democracy.
Like a retread of Dogville only it's far less effective and rarely transcends its simple provocation. The racial emphasis seems somewhat misguided, perhaps even misinformed, but there are a few memorable scenes that make it worth viewing, especially for Von Trier fans.
The often overlooked but in some respects superior sequel to Dogville. Whether it be Dafoe's smarmy gangster, or the sort of whiny liberal arts student Grace played by Howard this second part of the America Trilogy is an effective jab at the darker elements of white guilt and bourgeois liberalism. A film that maybe hit a bit too close to home for some critics is still wonderfully resonant in light of films like The Help.
Widely damned, MANDERLAY is nearly as good as DOGVILLE--a bit less sprightly as cinema, but with a more challenging subject: the racial divide in American society. Von Trier satirizes white guilt, as the well-meaning Grace does not quite find her idealism rewarded. Bryce Dallas Howard, taking over the character, is right for this story; earnest, sympathetic, but just a bit overbearing. The rest of the cast is strong, and Von Trier's work--especially the powerful ending--is just as good as ever.
It doesn't pack the emotional punch that Dogville does. We go into it with a certain expectation. This diminishes the power of the turn near the end of the film, which was already pretty weak to begin with.
Although "Manderlay" never reaches the emotional highs of "Dogville", its carefully structured narrative, well-written dialogue, thematic intrigue and moral implications make it a highly compelling watch. Howard doesn't match Kidman's nuance, but she's a solid substitute. The overall product, however, is hampered by the underwhelming ending, which, unlike the monumental finale of "Dogville", is emotionally muted and marks an obvious attempt to underline the message clearly implied by that point.