Picks and Pans Review: White Mischief

updated 04/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

By turns nasty-funny and just plain nasty-nasty, this spellbinding film mixes sex with politics and stretches the limits of the R rating to bursting. The continent of Africa is hardly the only thing violated in director and co-screenwriter Michael (1984) Radford's poison valentine to British colonialism. The fact-based plot, from James Fox's 1982 book of the same title, centers on Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll, a tall, handsome hedonist who was killed in January 1941 near his estate in Kenya's Happy Valley. Charles (Plenty) Dance is smashing as Erroll; you keep imagining how much livelier Out of Africa would have been with Dance in the Redford role. While war builds in Europe, Dance's earl spends his time boozing, partying, cross-dressing (he looks fetching in pearls) and bedding anyone the heat hasn't gotten first. His new conquest is Greta (A Man in Love) Scacchi, the bride of a titled codger movingly played by Joss Ackland. Scacchi and Dance—the scorchingest screen couple in ages—flaunt their lust. When Dance is found shot in the head, Ackland is tried and acquitted of the murder. The case was never solved. But hey, the whole cast looks suspect. Plantation owner John (The Elephant Man) Hurt reveals a letch for Scacchi, as does a dirty old lord (the late Trevor Howard) who peeps at her in the tub through a hole in a wall. Howard's wife, Geraldine Chaplin, is too busy with her manservant to notice. Everyone is on sensory overload. Sarah Miles as an ex-orgy-mate of Dance's gives a perverse farewell to his corpse that would shock the Marquis de Sade. Later, watching a sunrise, Miles utters the immortal line: "Oh God, not another f------ beautiful day," Radford clearly sees these debauched Brits as a blot on the African landscape. Yet he and cameraman Roger Deakins give their malevolent maneuverings a megavolt erotic charge. You may not care about this nest of pampered vipers, but you won't look away. On view is an empire doomed by its own decadence. White Mischief doesn't simply sizzle; it stings. (R)

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