White Mischief (1987)
“White Mischief. A True Story.”
Director: Michael Radford
Cast: Sarah Miles, Joss Ackland, Greta Scacchi
Synopsis: A millionaire past his prime and his young wife arrive in Kenya circa 1940 to find that the other affluent British expatriates are living large as the homefront gears up for war.
The scandalous — and unsolved — murder of Josslyn Hay, the 22nd Earl of Erroll and unofficial ‘king’ of the notorious Happy Valley Set in Kenya in the early 1940s, has long been a source of fascination for writers, but to date, Michael Radford’s White Mischief remains the only movie based on the events leading up to — and consequences arising from — Hay’s murder. It’s surprisingly really, given the decadence of the key players, their physical beauty and elegance, and the sexual antics in which they participated. The circumstances surrounding Hay’s untimely demise certainly make for an intriguing story, but it’s one that is dragged down by the unpleasantness of most of the people involved.
British aristocrat, Sir ‘Jock’ Delves Broughton (Joss Ackland — Royal Flash) seeks refuge from his financial problems by moving to Kenya with his new young wife, Diana (Greta Scacchi). The community of British colonialists residing in the Happy Valley region of the Wanjohi Valley are a hedonistic lot; unrestrained by the moral codes that govern everyday life back in Britain, they indulge in orgies, drink excessively and experiment with drugs. The seemingly strait-laced Broughton seems out of place amongst such a decadent band, but the beautiful Diana fits right in, and quickly catches the eye of dashing army officer Josslyn Hay (Charles Dance), a serial philanderer who wastes no time seducing Diana.
Quickly growing bored with her husband — they rarely share a conversation of any worth or depth — Diana succumbs to Hay’s advances, and it’s not long before their affair becomes the talk of the Happy Valley Set, much to Broughton’s embarrassment. When a direct appeal to Hay to stop seeing Diana meets with a flat refusal, Broughton appears to come to terms with the fact that he has lost her, and gives the couple his blessing. But then Hays is found shot dead in his car, and Broughton is charged with his murder.
It’s difficult to feel sympathy for any of the characters in White Mischief. The humiliation of Jock Broughton brings the audience on his side for a while, particularly when we see just how morally bankrupt Hay truly is. For some reason we never see his response to Broughton’s request that Hays bring an end to his affair with Diana, even though his response is obvious, which is a shame, because there are many ways in which Hay could have handled it, and whichever method he chose would have given an incisive insight into his character. We see Hays proclaim his love for Diana, but because he’s a notorious philanderer we can assume he’s also a practised and convincing liar. So when he calmly insists to Diana that the money Broughton promised her should they ever part isn’t important we’re never truly persuaded.
The position in which Broughton finds himself would be intolerable to any man, and it is this section of the movie which works best. He greets the infidelity with typical British reserve which not only makes him appear weak and powerless, but immediately isolates him from the decadent Happy Valley set, whose members display a studied insouciance to any violation of social or moral codes, no matter how extreme. But our sympathy for Broughton is tempered by the fact that he views Diana as nothing more than a possession, and so it’s the theft of this possession rather than the loss of her love which drives him. And yet Diana is not really worthy of any man’s love, as the fact that she eventually marries the uncommunicative, bedraggled and hygienically-challenged Gilbert Colville (John Hurt — The Elephant Man, 44 Inch Chest), who is tellingly referred to by another character as Kenya’s richest man, makes clear.
Although White Mischief makes for compelling viewing, and benefits greatly from some wonderful performances which ably capture a unique and peculiar mix of louche decadence and impeccable British manners, it flounders because of its lack of both sympathetic characters and a moral anchor. It focuses more on this decadent lifestyle than its consequences, and seems to lose interest following Hays’ death. Unfortunately, like the characters it portrays, White Mischief drifts aimlessly towards its inconclusive ending.
(Reviewed 31st January 2014)