White Mischief

March 13, 2020

whitemischiefIt 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.


1984

April 26, 2012

The new film version of 1984 is a solid, well-conceived adaptation of George Orwell’s novel. It must have been a tremendously daunting project to adapt one of the most famous books of the century.

It had happened once before—in 1956, with Edmond O’Brien as a rather incongruously well-fed Winston Smith. But that version has been tied up in Orwell’s estate for years, and movie rights for a remake have been similarly locked away.

Somehow, British producer Simon Perry cajoled the rights from Orwell’s heirs, just in time to start filming during the exact time described in the novel (April through June, 1984). Unfortunately, this meant that the film wouldn’t make it into general release until 1985.

But here it is—and despite the apparent anachronism of the title, 1984 seems just as relevant as ever. The story of one man and one woman being “thought criminals” in a totalitarian state controlled by the omnipresent image of Big Brother is chillingly suited to today’s latest-breaking news stories.

Adaptor-director Michael Radford is quite faithful to Orwell’s vision, even to the point of including the phrases that echo through the novel. The newspeak of Oceania is intact, with its sexcrimes, doublethink, and Party slogans, as well as the children’s rhyme that haunts Winston Smith: “Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clements….”

Radford also recreates Orwell’s physical description. This is a grimy, depressed industrial jungle, with telescreens looming over the scurrying citizens and announcers keeping up a steady drone of Party chatter. Radford’s visual scheme includes a bleached-out color that accurately conveys the spiritual blankness of most of the inhabitants of what was once known as London.

Radford’s casting is also true to the book. Certainly one would be hard-pressed to find a more fitting Winston Smith than John Hurt, whose sunken face suggests a lifetime of suffering. Remember, Hurt is the guy who was able to give humanity to the Elephant Man through his voice alone, so his deadened look is an appropriate counterpoint.

Smith is joined in sexcrime by Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), a fellow worker. Their nude scenes are deliberately used by Radford as a vivid contrast to the uniformity of clothing and appearance in the other parts of their world. Big Brother seeks to eliminate sex because it distracts people from the greater good of serving the Party.

It’s very nice that the late Richard Burton (to whose memory the film is dedicated) was able to end his film career—one of the most wildly uneven of any major actor—with something of merit. He is fine as O’Brien, the Party official who tortures Smith into embracing the “love” of Big Brother.

Somehow, this interesting movie never gets really great, and it may be due to is very faithfulness; Orwell’s book is not unusually well-suited to the movies, and the relentless horror of it all becomes numbing after a while. But it gets its point across—as Winston Smith says, “The important thing is not staying alive—the important thing is staying human.” The movie believes in that most insidious thoughtcrime, and it has never seemed truer.

First published in the Herald, February 26, 1985

I caught a few minutes of this on cable recently and it looked good; Burton was chilling. It might be hard to ever get the novel right, because it is such an unforgettable reading experience; one feels superbly illicit just opening the book and committing a thoughtcrime. I was very interested in Radford then, because I’d liked his film Another Time, Another Place; he would find real success with Il Postino but then kind of fall away from prominence.