It is Kenya, during World War II, and the wealthy British landowners are playing the games of the idle rich. The winds of war barely touch them, and they can indulge in unusually decadent behavior, including a good deal of sexual ’round-the-rosie.
The center of this group – of this film, White Mischief – is handsome Lord Errol (Charles Dance, from The Jewel in the Crown), a blithe spirit who seems to have laid claim to most of the women in colonial East Africa. But Errol becomes fascinated even more than usual with a beautiful new arrival (Greta Scacchi); she is gorgeous, playful, and he even sees in her a kindred promiscuous spirit.
There is a slight problem. She has a husband (Joss Ackland), a rich ranch-owner who is many years her senior. (But age was not a deterrent: “I like older men,” she says. “They have more money.”) Still, the mutual lust is not to be denied, and the two young lovers begin taking moonlit swims and lounging under mosquito nets together. The uncovering of this not very-discreet affair drives the husband to an act of violence that reverberates throughout the second half of the film. White Mischief is apparently based on a true incident, although some of it is conjecture. As directed by Michael Radford, the story becomes an excuse for some sweaty melodrama and a good dose of social criticism.
The melodrama comes courtesy of the characters’ utter cravenness, which would not be out of place in a nighttime soap opera. Ah, these rich are very different indeed – cuddling snakes, holding transvestite parties, swapping wives. The social comment, of course, comes from the same source. The implication is that the depravity of these white settlers is an outgrowth of the fact that they don’t belong in Africa in the first place.
Radford is an intriguing director; I liked his previous films, Another Time, Another Place, and 1984. He’s attempting a strange mix of moods here, and White Mischief is one of those movies that never quite gets all its gears working at once. Even when it’s not working, though, it’s almost always … well, interesting.
At the very least, Radford serves up a seductive-looking film, with many casually stunning views of the African landscape. And he uses a batch of watchable actors, including Sarah Miles (back into decadence after her fling with respectability in Hope and Glory), Geraldine Chaplin, John Hurt, and Trevor Howard.
Howard, in one of his final roles, is the embodiment of British misplacement. He sits, old and decrepit, on his African farm, taking potshots at beautiful tropical fruit as a servant sidesteps the bullets.
First published in the Herald, May 1988
Roger Deakins, whose first feature films were with Radford, was the cinematographer. Hugh Grant is somewhere in the cast, although I don’t remember him. Radford’s next film was Il Postino, a substantial success story that did not deliver him to the A-list somehow.