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

  1. Suspending all disbelief
    Is absolutely necessary
    To fiction's entertainment.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Must the duck be here?

The Favourite (2018)
(SPOILERS) In my review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I suggested The Favourite might be a Yorgos Lanthimos movie for those who don’t like Yorgos Lanthimos movies. At least, that’s what I’d heard. And certainly, it’s more accessible than either of his previous pictures, the first two thirds resembling a kind of Carry On Up the Greenaway, but despite these broader, more slapstick elements and abundant caustic humour, there’s a prevailing detachment on the part of the director, a distancing oversight that rather suggests he doesn’t feel very much for his subjects, no matter how much they emote, suffer or connive. Or pratfall.

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

I don’t know if what is happening is fair, but it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
(SPOILERS) I think I knew I wasn’t going to like The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the first five minutes. And that was without the unedifying sight of open-heart surgery that takes up the first four. Yorgos Lanthimos is something of a Marmite director, and my responses to this and his previous The Lobster (which I merely thought was “okay” after exhausting its thin premise) haven’t induced me to check out his earlier work. Of course, he has now come out with a film that, reputedly, even his naysayers will like, awards-darling The Favourite

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …