WHITE MISCHIEF (GB, 1988). Directed by Michael Radford. Screenplay, Radford & Jonathan Gems, from the book "White Mischief" by James Fox. Producer, Simon Perry. Photography, Roger Deakins. Editing, Tom Priestley. Music, George Fenton. Production design, Roger Hall. Cast: Sarah Miles, Joss Ackland, John Hurt, Greta Sacchi, Charles Dance, Geraldine Chaplin, Ray McAnally, Murray Head, Trevor Howard. A Columbia release. 100 min. Rated R .
"White Mischief," a fact-based book (it echoes the title "Black Mischief" by Evelyn Waugh), dealt with the assassination in Kenya, (January 1941), of Josslyn Hay, 39, the 22nd Earl of Erroll. Charges were brought against a baronet, Sir John Henry Delves Brougton, 57. The case is still unsolved.
The film is faithful to the book. It is set among upper-class British in 1940-1941 Kenya, during World War II. While Great Britain lives in austerity and deprivation, the colonists live in ostentation and depravation. "Joss" Erroll (Charles Dance) the victim-to-be, is a womanizer on a grand scale. "Jock" Broughton (Joss Ackland), who seems determined to squander or lose his large fortune, has recently taken a youg wife , Diana (27 in real life- played by Greta Scacchi) who is carrying on openly with Erroll.
This triangle is both the core of the film and the connecting thread for a coolly funny look at the decadence of swingers in full swing, with bored sex of all varieties predominating. The colonials, sadly-comically also delude themselves as contributing to the war effort with whatever work they do, mostly having others manage their farms and send shipments to beleaguered England, or else just being there.
The reconstruction of the period is perfect, with convincing atmosphere, artifacts, the music of the day and a sharp (yet not insistent) description of what this odd milieu called The Happy Valley. Excellent production values --and beautiful landscapes too.
The milieu is rotten, verges on caricature and is, indeed, a set of self-caricatures. Yet it rings peculiarly true as a dark side of British eccentricity. Sensual Scacchi, cynical Dance, resigned (up to a point) Ackland, and a solid supporting cast of imperturbable weirdos are first-rate. The outrageousness of behavior never ceases, not even after the killing.
The film just shows, never analyzes, judges or moralizes. This disturbed a few critics but pleased others (myself included).
Hugh Grant makes a short appearance at the start, in London, as the boyfriend of calculating Scacchi who is about to marry wealthy Ackland.