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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

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