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

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018) (SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop .

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.