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Film review: Dogville

Published: Thursday, May 20 2004 12:29 p.m. MDT

Nicole Kidman stars as Grace Margaret Mulligan, a woman on the run from gangsters, in "Dogville."

Rolf Konow, Lions Gate Films

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"Dogville" looks very much like a 21st-century version of Thornton Wilder's classic stage play "Our Town." That includes its minimalist use of stage sets (there are few if any walls, and for the most part, there are chalk outlines to suggest where the buildings are supposed to be), as well as a knows-all narrator to fill in the blanks (John Hurt, low-key as usual).

The difference is "Our Town" uncovers its themes throughout the course of the play, whereas "Dogville" says everything it wants to say early on, but then repeats it all endlessly (even underscoring thoughts with a rather nasty little jab during the closing credits). To say that this material is heavy-handed is putting it mildly.

All of which helps make an already drawn-out film feel even longer. And given that it's nearly three hours, this cinematic visit to "Dogville" quickly grows wearisome.

Still, the film does feature some fine performances, especially by Nicole Kidman. She stars as Grace, a mysterious beauty who shows up in this tiny, fictional Rocky Mountain community during the Great Depression. Her arrival causes quite a commotion among Dogville residents.

The town's intellectual leader, Tom (Paul Bettany), finds himself thrust into the role of Grace's defender, as he deliberately hides her presence from the gangsters who come looking for her. He also persuades his fellow residents to do likewise, to accept her into their homes. The proviso is that she'll do work for each of them, including general store owner Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall), blind hermit Jack McKay (Ben Gazzara) and orchardman Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard).

However, they all soon take the all-too-willing Grace for granted — and some even take advantage of her.

It's clear that filmmaker Lars von Trier intended this material to be a penetrating examination of the treatment of immigrants in America. However, he keeps making the same point over and over again to the point of overkill. He also presents few, if any, solutions or alternatives to the problem.

And if not for the cast — which also includes such dependable actors as Patricia Clarkson, Blair Brown, Jeremy Davies, Philip Baker Hall and Chloe Sevigny — it would be even more of a chore to watch.

"Dogville" is rated R for violence (shootings, mostly overheard, as well as some violence against women), a scene depicting rape, a sex scene, brief male nudity, scattered use of mild profanity, and some brief drug content (use of pharmaceuticals). Running time: 177 minutes.


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