There is surely a great film to be made from the incident that precipitated the demise of Kenya’s “Happy Valley” set, but White Mischief misses the boat. Here is a murder mystery amidst against a backdrop of supreme aristocratic decadence, so why is all so tame and respectful?
Michael Radford has to take the lion’s share of the blame as director and co-author of the screenplay. He injects the film with all the vigour of a TV movie (apologies to DP Roger Deakins), with only the occasional spillage of bare breasts or murmur of discreet outrage to indicate otherwise. That and the presence of Greta Scacchi, contractually obliged to disrobe for every role at this point.
The film is based on events surrounding the murder of the Earl of Erroll, Josslyn Hay (Charles Dance), in 1941. The consummate cavalier ladies man, Joss is fully immersed in the wife-swapping, drug-fuelled debauchery of his peer group. He begins an affair with the newly arrived Lady Diana Broughton (Scacchi). Her husband Sir John “Jock” Broughton (Joss Ackland) is resigned to the relationship but objects to the very public manner in which it is conducted. However, he and Diana appears to end their relationship in a conciliatory fashion and wishes the couple well. Soon after, Joss is shot dead in his car. Jock comes under immediate suspicion, leading to a murder trial.
Since the trial does not form the climax to the film, and as it’s a matter of historical record, it’s not spoiling things too much to reveal that Jock was acquitted. This in itself caused something of an outrage as he was regarded as clearly responsible (the evidence was insubstantial, although there have been revelations recently that appear to confirm his culpability). Radford points suspicion but demurs from putting Jock clearly at the scene (he also alters his fate for dramatic effect). But the director pulls his punches throughout, so that shouldn’t be too surprising. Perversely, his approach reflects the closed-ranks attitudes of the group he presumably wants to dissect; it’s not even that he is seduced by their debauchery (Radford is far too reserved). He’s just unable to muster the fire to say anything about them beyond fingering them as a terribly naughty bunch, don’t you know.
I thought a number of times watching this again (I’d last seen the film more than twenty years ago) how much better suited to the material someone like Nic Roeg would have been. Although, I tend to think that most movies could be improved by Roeg’s involvement. Eureka came to mind particularly, with its wealthy husband cuckolded by a younger man (the not un-Charles Dance-like Rutger Hauer). Or how about someone who would revel gleefully in their filthy lifestyles; Paul Verhoeven, perhaps?
There’s a scene where Sarah Miles’ character Alice (who was Joss’ lover until Diana came along) smears her vaginal secretions over the face of her ex’s corpse. It’s as daring as Radford gets, and even then there’s an air of very English reserve present. Earlier we see her syringe, but there’s no graphic mainlining. A transvestite party proves to be distressingly formal. Trevor Howard engages in a spot of voyeurism, but it’s nothing to get worked up about. And the sordid wife-swapping amounts to little more than a naked Jacqueline Pearce offering herself to any takers. The dampened spirit of Fellini seems to come over Radford during a graveside party climax but he’s not wholehearted enough about it.
The director also seems to have little interest in encouraging his audience to empathise with these characters, which is surely necessary on some level. As a result it’s left to the actors to do most of the heavy-lifting. Ackland and Dance are as dependable as you’d expect, while Scacchi proves surprisingly strong as the centre of attention (I say this only as she seems so much more sure of herself here than in Defence of the Realm, only two years earlier). Miles has probably the most relishable part, and makes the most of it, while John Hurt is amusingly curt as the gone-native Gilbert Colvile (the end credits inform us of what he did next).
If Radford doesn’t appear quite sure of how to present the natural Kenyan population, who appear invariably in a menial capacity, that’s an understandable consequence of the artificial, detached lifestyle of his characters. Occasionally there’s a touch that says it all; a shot fired too close for the comfort of a servant replacing a pineapple for target practice, who just seems resigned to that kind of thing. But the problem is a broader one in that Radford hasn’t sufficiently defined the bubble that this rich white enclave lives within; by the time Hurt is asked to provide some reference points it is too late.