White Mischief (1988) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I just love the characterizations in movies about the British ruling class in Africa and India. You have to understand that I don't know how these people actually lived, but I've seen a number of movies which portray them consistently as vainglorious, greedy, shallow, condescending, and racist twits with no respect for the native cultures of their colonies.

"The diamond is cursed, Sahib/Bwana, if you remove it from the eye of Shiva/n'botu, we all die ... !"

"I say, Jeeves, bring me another gin and quinine, and do shoot that frightful beggar, if you would."

This film has all the classic elements. While the people of Africa starved and the people back in England faced German rockets and fought the Battle of Britain, the British expats in Kenya worried about where to get a good drink, who had the best centerpieces at last month's round of parties, whose wife had the most elegant pearls, and who was sleeping with whom.

The frivolity of the expat colony was interrupted by the murder of one of their own. A middle aged man, Lord Broughton, brought a carefree, gold-digging young bride to the colony, and the gorgeous young Lady Broughton took about an hour to find a studly young lover with a fancy title (the Earl of Erroll). The old husband seemed to accept her inevitable desire to dissolve their marriage, and the old coot even toasted the young lovers with a celebratory dinner ...
 ... after which the young Earl was found pushing up the daisies in the front seat of his car, shot to death.
These events are based on a true story, and the names have not been changed for the film. In both the film and in reality, the old husband was charged with the murder, but acquitted. The crime remains officially unsolved. The screenplay and the eponymous book both assume Lord Broughton was guilty, and the film reinforces that conclusion with a rather bizarrely incriminating finale.
Not everyone finds that a reasonable conclusion.
Here is an historical account of the trial by a lawyer involved peripherally. (He was almost chosen to be the defense counsel). Although another member of the colony, Lady Carberry, claimed to the author of White Mischief that Lord Broughton confessed his guilt to her personally, the author of the historical article linked above poo-poos this revelation. In fact, he says that the government's accusations against the husband were ludicrous, presuming the old boy to have shimmied up and down a drainpipe and to have hiked five miles on foot in order to commit the crime. Furthermore, the prosecutors tried to prove that Lord Broughton's Colt was the murder weapon, a contention that was utterly destroyed by the defense in the trial. The murder weapon was later shown to have been a five groove gun which was never linked to Lord Broughton or any other member of the colony. The lawyer/observer speculates that the crime probably had to have been committed by one or more of the dozens of female lovers of the Earl of Erroll, very possibly by Lady Broughton herself.
Whatever the true story may be, the case continues to fascinate new generations of Englishmen because it exposed the decadent excesses of people who were living a shallow life of luxury while their countrymen endured the hardships of WW2.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I find that scripted versions of gripping real-life crimes and trials rarely make for interesting films. If the author stays too close to real-life court procedure, the film gets tedious. If the author strays into symbolism and speculation (ala Nick Roeg's Eureka), he tends to substitute lunatic imaginings for those elements that made the crime interesting in the first place. The aforementioned Eureka, however, for all of its mad faults, is a far more interesting interpretation of a sensational crime than White Mischief, which just slogs along. The Earl's murder must obviously have been a crime of passion, but I had a hard time imagining any of these characters being passionate about anything. Even their sexual couplings were perfunctory, as if they were performing obligatory social rituals, like dancing with one's cousin at a family wedding.

The director of the film is Il Postino's Michael Radford, and nobody will ever accuse this guy of getting into a rut. He has only worked on a handful of major projects over the past two decades, and his five major films have virtually nothing in common.

  1. (7.49) - Il Postino (1994)
  2. (6.79) - Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
  3. (6.01) - B. Monkey (1998)
  4. (5.93) - White Mischief (1987)
  5. (5.83) - Dancing at the Blue Iguana (2000)


Greta Scacchi - breasts many times, one brief glimpse of pubic hair.

Jacqueline Pearce - breasts and buns.

I think that all of his films offer splendid sights to behold, including this one, but this is by far the least interesting of the five. Even the improvisational Dancing at the Blue Iguana allows some involvement with the characters, but this one stays aloof from the people who populate it. I suppose that's just as well, because they are not very nice people to begin with. The problem is that I had to spend two hours with them.
Greta Scacchi was young and gorgeous as Lady Diana Broughton, however. She wore about three dozen designer outfits, and female audiences seemed to find this and other elements of the film somewhat engaging, scoring it a most respectable 7.2 at IMDb. Men, however, score it only 5.8, so it is definitely a certified chick-flick, with 1.4 estrogen points. The IMDb scores also increase with the age of the voters, so it's officially a granny chick-flick, with approximately the same demographic appeal as that favorite of grannies everywhere, Beaches.  If you guys get stuck watching it, don't despair. Greta also showed off her designer chest a lot, so there is plenty of eye candy for you, if little else.

Fair warning: the film is not entirely a Hugh Grant-free zone, although our hero has only a tiny, albeit suitably floppy-haired part. (Right)

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: two and a quarter stars. Ebert 3/4, BBC 2/5.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 5.9/10. (Men 5.8, women 7.2)
  • The budget was about 45 million. The film grossed $3 million in the USA
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C-. Some good eye candy, but it manages to make a sensational murder into a tedious exercise.

Return to the Movie House home page