Friday, August 01, 2008

The Adipocere Foxtrot - 'White Mischief'


Messerschmitt wasn’t the only German word frightening the British upper classes in 1940. Eton-educated souls who found themselves facing ration cards and stuffy air raid shelters along with the commoners might have looked up the term schadenfreude and felt themselves on the wrong side of it. But if you had lots of money and a pioneer spirit, you could take off to Kenya. It provided a fine colonial cover for those who fled England simply to protect their assets (and their ass).

And who could resist hobnobbing with the Happy Valley set, those frisky settlers who’d been the darling of British tabloids since the early 20’s? After all - when you’re rich and bored and out of his Majesty’s sight, why not try those ever-so-naughty things that the right kind of people aren’t supposed to enjoy?

Undercurrents of class consciousness, colonial entitlement and good old fashioned debuachery runs through Michael Radford’s White Mischief. It has the trappings of a mid-80's tony costume drama, but it doesn’t play out that way. There’s too much decadence in the background, including cross-dressing, binge-drinking, wife-swapping and a request for a chocolate covered lobster.


 When Sir Henry ‘Jock’ Broughton (Joss Ackland) and his wife Lady Diana (Greta Sacchi) arrive in Kenya, they’re instantly welcomed into the social scene. To be precise, Jock is tolerated. Diana is welcomed. Aggressively sexy and drop-dead gorgeous, it’s clear that she’s married Jock for his title and money. It’s pretty obvious why he’s married her. Putting the morality of a loveless marriage of convenience aside for a moment, most men would consider themselves lucky to have a bombshell like Greta Sacchi for a partner in such an endeavour.

Upon closer examination however, the scenario isn't quite as cold as all that: Jock might be misguided, but he isn't an idiot or a bully. He treats Diana with a level of respect that makes their arrangement both poignant and creepy. "Would you mind, dear?" he asks before she dutifully takes off her clothes in his bedroom (they sleep in separate beds with conjugal visits upon request). And Diana might be a social climber, but she isn't a whore. You can see creeping boredom behind her eyes rather than outright opportunism. A dull marriage is a small price for respectability.

Almost. Marrying into respectability doesn’t quite register with those who consider themselves of the manor born. When somebody sums Diana up by saying “You don't marry women like Diana, you keep them,” you see the horrible catch-22 that she’s facing. A class-slight is something far crueler than a moral condemnation- one can improve one’s behaviour, but one can never turn back the clock to be born to the right family. And it’s not like the Happy Valley crowd can stand on the moral high ground, anyway- when it comes to the seven deadly sins, they’ve have been at it for decades and could teach the average sybarite a thing or two.

When Jock’s inevitable cuckolding kicks in, it comes from Josslyn Hay, Earl of Erroll (Joss to his buddies, played by a quietly amoral Charles Dance). He's respectably disrespectable, an Eton dropout with a reputation for having slept with everyone who’s everyone in Kenya. It’s whispered that he’s the fourth in line to the throne of Scotland, and nobody dwells on the fact that Scotland hasn’t had a monarch for a few centuries. Moviestars would be commonplace; regal blood is not to be questioned too intently.

Joss’ shtick is well-worn but effective. Upon his first dance with Diana at a party, he whispers “Shall you tell your husband, or shall I?” as if their illicit relationship is already in progress. She resists at first, but stuffy old Jock (who’s hard at work losing his family fortune with an ill-fated cattle ranch) isn’t a match for the relatively dashing Joss. When she finally spends a weekend at his lakefront house, their naked swim and accompanying frolic doesn’t garner any response greater than a wry smile from the other guests. You can almost hear them chanting ‘One of us’ quietly between their cigarettes and scotch.

Joss and Diana’s affair isn’t taken seriously by anyone except Joss and Diana. The locals think it’s business as usual and even Jock rather meekly admits that “young women must have their amusements.” He and Diana have an arrangement after all, he’d just prefer than it be kept discreet. He doesn't have much luck with that – she and Joss canoodle openly during one of those cross-dressing parties that’s supposed to be frightfully outrageous but actually looks rather dull (it must be said that Jock makes a very homely girl, while Joss might be considered striking in proper lighting with the right hat).

Radford should be credited for making this scene come across as bleakly funny rather than ridiculous, and the audience sees that the biggest problem for the Happy Valley set is boredom. Decadence isn’t the same thing as all-out fun. Hard partying takes it out of you after awhile, and if your liver doesn’t dissolve and you don’t overdose on morphine and you’ve slept with everyone and not caught anything worse than a cold, good old fashioned ennui will still get you in the end. By the time somebody sighs “Oh God...not another fucking beautiful day” in the face of a glorious African sunrise, you understand these people perfectly. Whether you’re amused or appalled depends largely on your sense of humour.

When Diana starts staying out until dawn, Jock is long past laughing at anything. Their arrangement involved a pledge to step aside if she fell in love with someone else, and he’d kindly offered 5000 pounds a year to her for seven years if she requested a divorce. That cash is looking hard to come by after buying a Kenyan estate and a ranch, so what’s a lovestruck fool to do? His close friend Jack Soames (a frail Trevor Howard) sums it up thusly- “You’ve been a chump, old boy” – and Jock is never quite the same.

It’s irrelevant whether said chumphood was intentional on Diana or Joss’ part or not. The final effect is undeniable. Sacchi is a good enough actress to still project some concern for Jock – the old dear has been ever so kind to her, after all – and it’s impossible to tell whether she’s angling for that 5000 pound annual or not. Joss, throne of Scotland notwithstanding, claims to be broke (every colonial in Kenya seems to live large and fret about money) and you can’t guess if he’s wooing Diana as his meal ticket or the end of his days as a bounder.

But by the time Diana finally relents to ask Jock for the dough, Joss announces that he won’t accept it. You’re not quite sure if the con game is still on or if both players have taken a leap of faith. They don’t look sure either. The two poker champs have simultaneously called each other’s bluff and the hanging possibilities are tantalizing.

Unfortunately, Jock meets a nasty end shortly thereafter when a bullet is shot through his ear into his brain by persons unknown. It benefits nobody except the fifth in line to the throne in Scotland who is immediately promoted to fourth. The ear in question makes a re-appearance later. In a courtroom scene. In a jar.


White Mischief is almost 2/3rds into its running time before it becomes a murder mystery, and its not much of a mystery. There are lots of suspects (mostly irate husbands and jilted lovers), but Jock has the most motive and gets carted away to a cozy cell as the investigation gets under way. Radford ratchets up the ghoulish tone in the local morgue where one of Joss’ past paramours performs an inappropriately intimate gesture to his corpse. You’re appalled by it, but not surprised. These people are practically zombies already, so an act verging on necrophilia somehow fits rather naturally between polo and a cribbage match on a slow afternoon.

Diana waits for the court date and gets squired about by Gilbert Colvile (John Hurt), a monosyllabic cattle baron who’s barely tolerated by the country club set that claim he’s ‘gone native’ (somebody hisses “When I see his fingernails, I thank god that I can’t see his feet” upon his arrival). His cattle are overseen by the Masai, a deal which works out especially well for him. “They wouldn’t take money if it was offered,” he says, “they just want to be close to the cattle.” It’s clear both sides think the other is quite mad for their choice of lifestyle, but at least they’ve managed to co-exist.

Race isn’t a spoken issue in the film, which is a virtue considering how easy it would have been to throw in a few scenes of rich white folk mistreating the natives. But there's a beautiful (horrible?) bit of shorthand for the disregard that the colonials have for the colonized – Jock and John sitting in lawn chairs on a sun-swept veranda, shooting at rows of fresh fruit on a fence as target practice. They’re clearly on their 3rd or 4th scotch for the afternoon, having a gay old time blasting produce into atoms with their old service revolvers.


Between rounds, you watch an unflappable Kenyan servant setting up a row of three pineapples, and you see the pineapple on the left explode just as he finishes placing one to the right. He barely twitches. He’s used to it. You don’t see Jock or Jack’s response, but you know there must have been some concern over the incident. If their aim had faltered, there would have been the trouble of finding a new servant.

The film is an odd duck – it’s too reserved to work as juicy pulp fiction and far too mordant to serve as a morality play, at least not the kind where you enjoy the immorality before the comeuppance. It revels in upper class misbehaviour while pointing out that everyone involved is long past enjoying it. Even sin has a best-before date. Forbidden fruit is best before it dries up and wrinkles. Or rots and starts to smell.

That also sums up most of the Happy Valleyers: they’re long past withering on the vine and a few of them are steps away from all-out (if well dressed) mummification. Live fast, die young, make a great looking corpse is the exception; Get bored, get old, get a closed casket by popular demand is all too often the rule. Diana finally twigs to this fact and you're left with the impression that she'll get out alive, if not proud.

The rest of the expatriate nosferatu are probably lost causes, but they're rather charming in an undead sort of way. You almost want to tell them to get into the sun occasionally, cut down on the cigarettes and gin and for God’s sake, stop trying to have fun. It's never been a forte of the British upper classes. They're simultaneously too well-bred and inbred to do it properly. They've done their best, but the fun's gone off and it's gotten all lumpy.

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