Out of Africa

April 13, 2012

Out of Africa is a chronicle of the early womanhood of Danish author Karen von Blixen, based on her writings (under the name Isak Dinesen) and on biographies about her. The film traces the years approximately surrounding World War I, a period in von Blixen’s life during which she lived in Africa.

What a story it is, full of adventure, exotica, disaster, and romance. But what a frustratingly pedantic film version, with few flights of poetry.

On a sheer storytelling level, the film gets off to a good start. We see a glimpse of Karen (Meryl Streep) in 1913 Denmark, proposing marriage to a casual friend, the Baron von Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer). They’re not in love, but she wants his title, and he wants her family’s money, so they agree to the match.

Soon after, she joins him in Africa, where they establish a coffee plantation. Their idyll, during which she surprises many with her pre-women’s lib gumption, is broken when she contracts syphilis, a side effect of the Baron’s philandering. She goes to Denmark for a cure, and on her return to Africa, the marriage exists in name only.

That clears the way for her friendship with Denys (Robert Redford), a hunter who encourages her uncanny skill for telling stories. Soon he’s keeping residence at her house, for the few days when he returns between safaris.

This love story takes up the last 90 minutes of the movie—and as I examine the thumbnail synopsis above, it is difficult to believe that this film actually takes more than two-and-a-half hours to tell its story. But it does.

The problem is that, after the promising opening, director Sydney Pollack (Tootsie) falls prey to the curse of the Big Movie Syndrome, in which ideas and events must be drawn out and overemphasized, so that the people who vote for the Oscars will be sure to notice. He pads the carefully constructed screenplay by Kurt Luedtke with countless shots of breathtaking plains and hills.

Most of this travelogue stuff is impressive indeed, thanks to the beauty of the continent and David Watkin’s handsome cinematography. The high point of this is a lovely sequence wherein Denys pilots his new plane for Karen, and they fly over an ocean beach, scattering thousands of pink flamingos.

But Pollack overdoes things. He doesn’t just put Karen in peril of a lion attack once—he does it three separate times. And he can’t integrate the importance of the war or the issue of native freedom in any sensible way.

Even more troubling, he hasn’t gotten his actors up to snuff. Redford, in what is essentially a supporting role, appears uneasy and distant. Streep is technically very impressive, but she doesn’t have the depth to reach the nitty-gritty of what must have been an amazingly gutsy woman. Together, they fail to strike sparks—both are inward-directed actors.

This all makes Out of Africa sound worse than it actually is; it’s not an inept film, and there’s a lot to look at and enjoy. But, given the material and the credentials of the filmmakers, it certainly is a disappointment.

First published in the Herald, December 19, 1985

Perhaps you heard this went on to win the best picture Oscar? I would watch it again, as a big fan of Dinesen and a big fan of Africa on film. But I mean I thought some things needed to be said, right? And though Meryl Streep hardly lacks depth, I did think she missed a level, even if she’s still very good in the picture. Brandauer’s great, by the way, slinking off with the movie under his arm.


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