Out of Africa is big, beautiful to look at, impressive, and the kind of sweeping, literary experience for which awards are given. This one picked up Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay.
Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke lived from 1913 to 1931 in Kenya, and then was forced through economic disaster to return to her native Denmark, where she was haunted the rest of her life by the images of the country she described as “a glimpse of the world through God’s eye.”
Her memoirs, written under her pen name, Isak Dinesen, form the material in Out of Africa, and director Pollack has been a faithful interpreter (although he certainly applied a sugar-coating).
The images are as luminous and evocative as the prose from the verdant valleys and dappled skies to the peaceful coexistence of man and game in a great country on the verge of destruction through progress.
Practically everybody connected with Out of Africa is British. They know how to light a scene. They know all about composition, movement, and cinematic form. The result is a film of extraordinary visual elegance in which every frame is suitable for eleven-by-fourteen framing.
But there comes a time when we grow restless of art gallery exhibits and long for some real people to arrive.
Meryl Streep is too damn aristocratic. She has the Danish accent down perfectly (would it be a Meryl Streep movie without a new accent?) and even manages to meld arrogance with humanity.
But she never shows much vulnerability, even when her coffee farm reduces her to financial ruin. She never crumbles even when her rakish, good-for-nothing husband gives her syphilis and she’s forced to return to Denmark for long and torturous arsenic treatments.
She never cracks her porcelain exterior, even when she loses her dashing adventurer-aviator-big game safari hunter lover (Robert Redford). What’s with this woman?
Karen Blixen marries a man she doesn’t love in order to buy a title, moves to Africa with her books, antiques, and Limoges china, crosses the desert with only a compass, sleeps by a campfire beside the black natives, encounters rampaging lions and Masai warriors, and builds a reputation among the British colonials that is unconventional and controversial.
But whether she is raising money to teach English to native children or watching a friend die of black-water fever, she is dispassionate, indifferent, reserved. And boring.
Klaus Maria Brandauer as her titled but irresponsible husband easily steals the film, while Robert Redford as the great white hunter who symbolizes the rugged, untamed Africa she loves only drops in from time to time to get his socks darned.
Although Redford gets top billing and piles of money, he has virtually nothing to do and contributes only a minor presence while doing it.
In the role of Karen Blixen, Meryl Streep swaps her European attire for clothes more practical in early 1900s Kenya – jodhpurs and riding boots or shapely linen jackets with full ankle-length skirts.
“The film had an enormous impact on the sale of linen,” says Leanne Whitehouse, the principal and founder of the Whitehouse Institute of Design. “Everyone was wearing it, in all forms.”
Out of Africa is a beautifully made film, but this version of Karen Blixen’s life is thickly coated with sugar.
Klaus Maria Brandauer