The Trouble with Nature is a hilarious, unique, and witty debut film from Danish director Illum Jacobi. This periodic drama follows Eighteenth Century philosopher and scholar Edmund Burke on an imagined voyage through the French Alps in search of evidence for the concept he invited and published in his 1757 book A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Burke was a Whig politician, an educated white man who invented the concept of the sublime, which refers to something that possess such greatness that it exceeds human rationale or limitation, whether it be incredibly beautiful, unbelievably powerful, or extraordinarily spiritual. It is often used to refer to the awe-inspiring greatness of nature and had a monumental impact on the Romantic movement that followed several years later.
The comedy in The Trouble with Nature comes from the fact that Burke does not understand this concept himself, as a pompous city man of high status, he is so fixated on his own ego that he cannot see or appreciate the beautiful landscapes that are right in front of him, “I haven’t been very impressed with these landscapes”. Jacobi draws upon the fact that in real life, Edmund Burke had written his entire thesis without ever having left the city. When fictional Burke finally experiences deep forests, vast plains and soaring mountains, he finds it “absolutely rubbish” and declares “I’m so over all this, nature”.
Antony Langdon does a fantastic job of using visual comedy to present Burke in such a hilariously unflattering way. He is constantly complaining about everything he comes across, from the “bloody trees everywhere” to the “useless” fields. Dressed head to toe in his preposterous velvet suit, high white stockings, traditional heels and Periwig, he couldn’t look any more out of place in the wilderness.
Jacobi’s choice to include Nathalia Acevedo’s character, the indigenous maid Awak, is a clever way to further demonstrate how shut off from his own philosophies Burke really is. Awak has a true connection with the elements, whilst she showers in waterfalls and attempts to communicate with the animals they meet, Burke calls them “terrible f*cking creatures” and demands his face be powdered to perfection despite the fact they’re in the middle of a forest. He constantly patronises her and undermines her ability to comprehend the sublime, yet when he states humans are the “masters” of it, Awak replies “I’m scared to feel myself the master of something so big”, clearly indicating her understanding of the concept and his egotistical misinterpretation of it. Jacobi questions the validity that these privileged, white philosophers, scholars and politicians have by pointing out the irony the most of these men lived a much more sheltered life than the majority of the people they preached to.
The satirising comes to a climax as the film ends, with a visual nod to the painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, an image that characterises the Romantic period. This image epitomizes the movement that centered on worshiping the sublime. Jacobi has Burke mirror the pose of the man in the painting, whilst urinating off the top of the cliff in one final mockery of the Edmund Burke’s character and his total lack of respect for nature. This intelligent film offers an original representation of one of the founders of the modern Western world, drawing some much-needed attention to his bias and flaws rather than blindly praising him for his writing.