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

Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the