A Danish botanist’s naive optimism clashes with the harsh reality of West African colonial life in “Gold Coast,” an atmospheric early-19th-century morality tale in which the salt air, humidity and horror of its distant remove from law and order are made palpable, almost suffocating, by the period pic’s feverish style. Documentary helmer Daniel Dencik (“The Expedition to the End of the World”) brings a stunning eye and remarkable sense of texture to his narrative debut while allowing the story itself to drift, limiting the sensually powerful experience to patient arthouse and festival crowds. With an obvious debt to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” the film fictionalizes an innocent’s ambitious mission on behalf of the Danish king to transform a graveyard into a garden, paving the way for the character’s descent into disillusion and madness after he discovers the grip that slavery and human cruelty still hold on the remote outpost.
In 1792, Denmark became the first European country to ban the slave trade, but as Dencik’s tale disturbingly acknowledges, the abominable practice was allowed to carry on illicitly for another half-century (reportedly until 1848). The film opens in 1836 with a scene of graphic humiliation as its imprisoned martyr-hero, Wulff Joseph Wulff (Jakob Oftebro), is beaten and urinated upon by two sadistic colonial officers, before flashing back to the romantic reverie that awaits him back home. Back home in Copenhagen, bathed in soft focus, his blonde-haired betrothed, Flitsbue (Luise Skov), covers him with kisses before sending Wulff on the king’s errand: to plant a coffee plantation in Danish Guinea.
And so “Gold Coast” reveals its light-and-dark agenda: a tangle of golden light, golden hair and golden showers — saintly good intentions crushed and defiled by demonic, one-dimensional villains. While the movie embraces certain thematic paradoxes, only Wulff’s psychology is permitted complexity, and even then, it’s considerably simplified from the man’s actual biography, considering that the real-life Wulff — not the tall blond Viking type represented by Oftebro, but a less obviously Nordic (he was Jewish, actually) civil servant — reportedly owned slaves and cohabited with a mixed-race servant woman, whom he met on the Gold Coast (now Ghana, where much of the film was shot).
In the film, from the moment of his arrival in Danish Guinea, Wulff is accepted by the indentured native population almost like a deity (they even carry him on their shoulders from the ship). Accepting the help of “my own little slave,” a boy named Lumpa (John Aggrey), the 28-year-old intellectual immediately sets out to plant his coffee crop. His early actions are accompanied by a woman’s voice, that of young missionary Caroline (Danica Curcic), whose goal of converting the locals to Christianity strikes Wulff as futile, though his own task is hardly easy, especially with resistance from the local Ashanti tribe — the leader of whom, Hans Richter (Wakefield Ackuaku), is a cruel despot who brands his slaves and beheads his enemies.
Over the course of the first hour, Caroline’s ironic sermons (words of enlightenment that also serve to keep the natives in their place) blend with the poetic words of Wulff’s love letters back home. Cinematographer Martin Munch supplies breathtaking images, the fragments of which appear dreamily stitched together and hypnotically underscored by discreet synthesizer tones — music that erupts into throbbing, full-power electronic anthems, courtesy of composer Angelo Badalamenti (operating in Danish cinema’s post-“Drive” overdrive), during the film’s primordial montages, as when Wulff sets out to deal with Richter, first for trade and later backed by armed soldiers.
Representing both temptation and virtue, Caroline could be the only well-meaning white person in Christiansborg, and though Wulff does his best to insulate himself from the hedonism that surrounds him — especially the violence and debauchery practiced by bearded Herbst (Adam Ild Rohweder) and power-hungry Lucas (Anders Heinrichsen), the two officers who will be brutalizing him soon enough — the untamed jungle outpost offers no support for his moral outrage. Apart from being at the mercy of a weak and ailing governor (Morten Holst), Wulff is prone to various illnesses himself, including a nasty worm that has taken up residence in his leg.
Oftebro, a statuesque actor with sharp, proud cheekbones and an uncanny resemblance to a young Willem Dafoe, convincingly appears to waste away as the film unfolds, the outline of his ribs and eye sockets growing more pronounced as malnutrition sets in. Dencik does a remarkable job of capturing the feel of the place, given added dimension through the sound of insects and the sea, but isn’t quite as successful at conveying the degeneration of Wulff’s mental state. At one point, the botanist experiences what must either be an epiphany or a complete break with reality, becoming convinced that he has discovered an important new agricultural technique, as reflected in the spiral motifs he observes in the environment around him, accentuated and exaggerated by Munch’s spinning camera.
Dencik’s style lends itself well to such a whirling state of delirium, but there comes a point in “Gold Coast” when we expect things to focus, and instead, they seem to drift farther and farther afield. The helmer has guided his audience into a moral quagmire, where a slaveowner is compelled to take a stand for what’s right, but the resolution, while sketchily possible to follow, lacks both logical sense and the tragic impact the helmer evidently intended. Instead, we’re haunted by atmosphere and the heavy sense that even the most evolved societies regress to barbarism.