Skip to main content

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.


Out of Africa
(1985)

I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

Well, I think it’s a slightly more interesting film that I did in then. But it remains a problematic one outside of the shelter of its star-powered romance. Colonial Kenya (or British East Africa, as it was when Streep’s character first moved there) is explored in only the most limited of ways, as it must always defer to the main theme. Corrected sentiments are espoused with the benefit of hindsight, but only enforce the air of an ever-so palatable fantasy Africa.

Based on the experiences of Karen Blixen (played by Meryl Streep), who wrote under the pseudonym of Isak Dinesen, the film follows her from native Denmark to Africa. There, she marries a friend, Baron Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a tie that suits their mutual convenience. She sets to work on their coffee plantation while Bror does his own thing, such that she contracts syphilis as a result of his illicit affairs. Once she has recovered, she asks him to move out of their farmhouse. At which point her friendship with big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) burgeons into romance, albeit one where he refuses to be tied down and she becomes contrastingly possessive.

Pollack and screenplay writer Kurt Luedtke are shy of putting Blixen’s attitudes too harshly under the spotlight. Her proprietorial qualities are touched upon, such that she even assumes that she owns the Kikuyu tribes people working on her farm, but her nurturing instincts set her up more as their great white protector than someone to be criticised for ignorance (she tends to the sick, and even ensures the tribe have land to live on when she returns to Denmark).

And, since Denys takes the role of the gently mocking far-sighted seer, it is implicit that the filmmakers think they have all bases covered. Denys is, of course, an utterly romantic figure as personified by Redford (who is neither British nor bald, but one can see why that might be nixed as a potential turn-off), and curiously contradictory (promoting the safari – and ivory – trade on one hand but preaching the gospel that the white intruders won’t endure on the other).

Crucially, Blixen is portrayed as a brave, headstrong, forward-thinking woman; she’s something of a role model to women everywhere, see? We know this because she treks across dangerous territory to deliver supplies to her husband, and all the chaps have such respect for her that when she departs Africa for good she is invited for a drink in their men-only club. And when she and Denys encounter attacking lions (in slow motion!) she doesn’t hesitate in bagging one of the blighters. What a gal! Pollack wants us to be a bit in awe of her. It’s a film that can have it both ways, of course, since she goes weak at the knees whenever Denys is on the scene.

Which seems to be a lot, after Redford comes on board properly at about the halfway mark. Pollack reunites with Redford for the fifth time and it’s a stroke of genius casting in terms of box office (this wouldn’t always be so, of course; their next collaboration, Havana, fizzled); here he represents the ultimate female fantasy figure, wandering in just when Blixen needs him and lighting up her life. And then, washing her hair by a river! Taking her on elaborate picnics! On jaunts in his plane! And, as mentioned, Denys is portrayed as insightful beyond his era, with a great affinity for “untamed” Africa (he is given a particularly memorable anecdote about Massai tribesmen being locked up). As the American in the cast Redford’s character gets to sit in judgement of the British and not be sullied; it means Pollack can have it both ways, acting all wistful about the period without falling prey to accusations that he is portraying it as some kind of lost idyll.

The wandering in thing, though; this is a highly episodic narrative, bizarrely so at points. Blixen contracts syphilis, leaves for treatment and when she returns WWI is over! The last half of the film is essentially Denys dropping in and then leaving repeatedly, which cumulatively makes the viewer think he’s always there. This is a problem if you’re anything less than enraptured by their affair, as it takes approaching three hours to tell it’s unhurried story (it’s an epic; it has to be that long!)

There’s no denying the chemistry between Streep and Redford, and it makes the fairly inconsequential nature of their tryst agreeable viewing. Brandauer is also very good, as is Michael Kitchen (playing Denys’ friend Berkeley).

Streep’s accent, of course, is a different matter. Widely identified to be anything other than a Danish accent, and coming at a point when her priority appeared to be roles requiring funny voices (the slog of Sophie’s Choice was just behind her, a dingo waiting to steal her bay-by lay ahead), it’s fair to say that her choice is only distracting for the first ten minutes or so. Whether we would be quite so forgiving if Redford too had forged ahead with his proposed English accent is another matter. Likely anyone with even a vague knowledge of the film will be able to reel off “I hahd a fahm in Ahfrica” in an approximation of Meryl.

Ultimately, as confirmed by that nostalgic refrain (which both introduces and closes the movie), this is all about the rose-tinted view. As such, the romance will likely yield dividends if you’re willing to ignore all the prickly subjects surrounding it. Pollack and co most certainly do. And it is beautifully made, bathing luxuriously in a sumptuous John Barry score. If orange sunsets, open vistas and a golden haired Robert Redford giving you a rinse (better hurry up, though, he’ll be 80 in another couple of years) are on your to-do list this will push many of the right buttons. Otherwise, you’re not missing much.

**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded
The Premise
George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his…

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985)
(SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and gleefully distr…

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

Seems silly, doesn't it? A wedding. Given everything that's going on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010)
(SPOILERS) What’s good in the first part of the dubiously split (of course it was done for the art) final instalment in the Harry Potter saga is very good, let down somewhat by decisions to include material that would otherwise have been rightly excised and the sometimes-meandering travelogue. Even there, aspects of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I can be quite rewarding, taking on the tone of an apocalyptic ‘70s aftermath movie or episode of Survivors (the original version), as our teenage heroes (some now twentysomethings) sleep rough, squabble, and try to salvage a plan. The main problem is that the frequently strong material requires a robust structure to get the best from it.