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'White Mischief' (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 13, 1988

You're never out of fashion in pearls and a little black dress, even if you are Charles Dance. The strawberry-blond crumpet is the ill-fated Earl of Erroll in "White Mischief," an arch tale of decadent Brits in colonial Kenya. Though Erroll sometimes looks like the African queen here, he actually was the ultimate ladies' man.

Back home the British are enduring the blitz, while the carefree Erroll and his madcap circle are cross-dressing, swapping partners and having dubious relationships with pythons. The movie, from the nonfiction book by James Fox, portrays the consequences of too much luxury and too little imagination. The wild life had nothing to do with rhinos.

"White Mischief" is meant as a murder mystery, but it is more successful as a period "Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous," with exquisite Greta Scacchi as the hostess.

She plays the dazzling Diana, who has married the 57-year-old Sir Jock Broughton (Joss Akland) for his money. Unbeknownst to her, he is going broke as they leave his English estate for another in Africa. In Europe, she was the sort of woman who wore ermine to the bomb shelter, so she fits right in with the Kenyans. First thing, her husband introduces her to Erroll, his old friend. She gives him a heavy-lidded look -- hot as noon under an elephant-chewed baobab tree -- and he gives her one right back. And one thing leads to another.

Publicly cuckolded, Sir Jock is ever the gent and graciously agrees to release Diana from their marriage. He even takes the couple out for a celebratory dinner. Alas, later that night, Erroll is found shot through the head. Sir Jock is accused of the crime, and at first he reacts with elegant reserve. But out of the blue African sky, he gets out his elephant gun and starts spattering his estate with blood. And suddenly the characters don't seem as much gentry as refugees from a Brian DePalma movie.

The women, most of whom have had torrid affairs with the incredible Erroll, have come unhinged over his untimely death. Sarah Miles, as a creepy morphine-addicted heiress, is one of the most brokenhearted. When she and the other women in weeds visit the corpse, she even engages in a rather horrifying display of necrophilia.

Frankly the British are more charming when repressed, E.M. Forster-style. "White Mischief" does sparkle with the drawing-room jibes of these idle nabobs, who except for Diana and Erroll are all slightly past their prime. Portraying them that way, director Michael Radford, as British directors are apt to do, draws parallels to the piddling away of the empire. Radford definitely has a flair for the debauched romance of it all. But even Marlin Perkins has a better sense of drama.

"White Mischief" is rated R for plenty of good reasons.

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