With Iraq in meltdown, Iran going nuclear and those pesky North Koreans itching for a scrap, it's fair to say George Bush has more pressing concerns right now than a Yank-bashing filmmaker from Denmark. But that hasn't stopped Copenhagen's enfant terrible Lars Von Trier continuing his one-man crusade against Uncle Sam with Manderlay, the second instalment in the USA - Land Of Opportunities trilogy that began two years ago with Dogville. Having previously taken America to task for its small-town hypocrisy and fear of outsiders, the Dogme founder now tackles its history of slavery and racial prejudice. While the end result may not be as compelling or as memorable as its predecessor, it remains a shocking and unsettling wake-up call from Europe's leading agent provocateur.
Retaining Dogville's pared-down, experimental aesthetic, with minimal props, chalk lines for scenery and all the action confined to a bare studio set, Manderlay is, if anything, even more spartan and visually austere than its 2003 counterpart. It's also more overtly political, with Von Trier's main hypothesis that democracy imposed from without is really just another form of dictatorship certain to strike a chord with anyone who's been keeping up with events in the Middle East.
The big difference, though, is in the storytelling. Where Dogville dallied and meandered Manderlay steams inexorably forwards, propelled by a chilling sense of foreboding and the sexual tension that builds between Howard's Grace (a role inherited from an otherwise engaged Nicole Kidman) and Isaach de Bankolé's defiant slave Timothy. And it's topped off by a bitterly ironic coda that skilfully skewers the arrogance and condescension of all those who would presume to tell us how to live our lives.
Howard might lack Kidman's cool intensity, but she makes up for it with a youthful vivacity and brisk sense of purpose that steers the movie through its occasional dull patches. As loyal retainer Wilhelm, meanwhile, Danny Glover deserves praise for transcending what, in the hands of a lesser performer, could easily have become an ugly and insulting stereotype.