Empire (2023) Gothenburg Film Festival 2023

February 2nd, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Frederikke Aspock; Cast: Anna Neye, Sara Fanta Traore, Claus Riis Ostergaard, Jesper Groth, Tyler Erroll Murray, James Sampson, Cherie Celeste Malone; Denmark 2022, 92 min.

This lively costume drama from Danish director Frederikke Aspock satirises racism with an outwardly light ironic tone, but behind the brightly coloured sets and costumes there lurk some hard facts about colonialism during the mid nineteenth century.

Back in 1848 the Danish West Indies comprised the island of Saint Thomas, Saint John and Saint Croix (sold to the US in 1917). The story follows Anna Heegaard (Neye), a ‘free coloured’ woman who owns her own slaves and is living in the State House Mansion with the Danish Governor General Peter von Schotten (Ostergaard) who has a wife and family back home in Denmark.

Anna runs the place with a rod of iron, subjecting her black staff members to her draconian power games while pretending to be their friends. Her Maid of Honour, Petrine (Traore), who lives ‘in house’ with her young son Frederik (Murray), gets the brunt of Anna’s methods, but behind the scenes the slaves are starting to contemplate revolt.

The plot turns on Anna’s dominating attitude which extends beyond mere household matters and into the governor’s affairs of state. Gradually she becomes embroiled on both sides of the fence after a visit from Admiral Irminger (Groth) requesting that von Schottten plead the King for military support against the Obeah rebels. Anna overrides the Governor’s agenda, writing her own letter to the King, forging von Schotten’s handwriting, and asking for military support to be prepared in the event of a rebel uprising – something von Schotten has no intention of doing – with tragic consequences.

Beyond the light-hearted voice-over this is a cruel feature with episodes of brutal violence that point to moral decay on all sides, led by the Danish authorities, who will later be instrumental in selling the colony to the Americans, without asking the inhabitants. DoP Linda Wassberg captures the resplendent colours of the island setting, but is equally apt in showing the fatalities in a tour-de-force of human evil. AS



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