Sigh. I’ve been meaning to get to Out of Africa for best picture month since I first thought of the idea, and now that I finally have gotten to it, the original draws for me no longer seem to exist. It’s your typical best picture winner, an epic period romance with some culture clash drama thrown in (think Lawrence of Arabia and The English Patient, but without quite the depth of either of those films). There are many good things about Out of Africa, chief among them Streep’s performance, but the story overall just fell short for me for some reason.
Baroness Karen von Blixen (Meryl Streep) marries her friend, the Baron Bror von Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) mainly for his title after his brother dumps her. Bror then heads off to Africa to start a dairy farm, but when Karen joins her she finds that he has decided to grow coffee instead. Neither of them have any knowledge about coffee farming, and everyone tells them it’s not common to grow coffee at their altitude. Bror also decides that he really doesn’t want to farm anything, and so heads out for long stretches to hunt game instead leaving Karen to run a farm she never really wanted in the first place. WWI breaks out, which for Karen means more Bror absences and a harrowing journey to deliver a bunch of cattle to him, despite her being a woman and considered unfit for such tasks. To reward her, Bror accidentally gives her syphilis, not only exposing his infidelities but putting Karen in danger of insanity. She travels back home to Denmark, beats syphilis, then returns to Africa to take over the coffee plantation from Bror once and for all. Now that Bror’s gone, she takes up with another hunter, an Englishman named Denys (Robert Redford, though you wouldn’t know he’s English from his total lack of accent). She does seem happier with Denys, who respects her more than Bror does for sure, but he is really unable to commit to anybody (or anything, I’d argue), and their relationship dissolves as well.
This movie focuses mostly on the romance, which is a little disappointing because it teases a lot of other subjects but doesn’t go into them fully. I’m not just saying that to hate on the romance, because I think it’s mostly done pretty well, exploring Karen’s autonomy and selfhood in an interesting way. However, doing this leaves behind a lot of other interesting stuff, mainly her relationship to the community. Her farm is staffed almost entirely by members of the Kikuyu tribe, who live on her land (though I’m guessing it’s really their land that the Blixens paid the British government to own). The plot introduces the school she builds for the Kikuyu children as a substitute for the children she can never have, being left unable to have children of her own after contracting syphilis. We see brief shots of the school several times, and Karen and Denys discuss the morality of it, but we never once see Karen actually interacting with the children at the school. You see her relationship with a couple of the servants, but never in more than a perfunctory way. The film leaves behind a dramatic examination about what it means for a Danish woman to take control of an entire tribe in favor of a few conversations with Denys about it and a bunch more romance that is totally separate.
Or is it totally separate? Denys’ whole deal in this movie, to the exclusion of almost all else, is personal freedom. He thinks Karen should be free to do what she wants, despite being a woman in the early 20th century, he thinks he should be free to do what he wants, and he thinks Africa should be free to be itself without European influence. This of course begs the question: what is he doing here? The main contradiction (or hypocrisy) is that he leads European tourists on safaris to show them Africa, all the while complaining about European presence there, of which he is a part. Karen is portrayed in a much more straightforward way. She has a rather paternalistic view of the Kikuyu but that allows her to view her presence there as unproblematic, in a way that Denys can’t. Obviously both viewpoints are flawed, but Denys comes closer to respecting Africa, and yet, still plows through it like anyone else. Him seeing himself as “passing through” doesn’t make him a whole lot better, on an ideological level at least.
Much of the film is narrated through voice over of what I presume is Isak Denesan’s autobiography, or in other words, Karen Blixen at some later date (this is the only quibble I have with Streep’s performance, the drawn out and grave way the voice over is delivered). In one of these she talks about how her romance with Denys is not one of practicality, but rather escape. They never talk about concrete or mundane things, and because of this, she cannot confide in him about her struggles with the farm going bankrupt or anything else about her life. She has to tell him stories and live in the moment and in fantasy, which is fine in the beginning but cannot sustain itself over the long term. I really appreciated this observation because not only does it describe the problems with Denys as a person but also the film as a whole. It does touch upon the unpleasant realities of Karen’s life, but highly favors filtering everything through the romantic Denys relationship unfortunately.
I did enjoy Out of Africa well enough, but found Denys’ whole character (Redford’s good at points, but overall kind of underwhelming) as well as the romance’s insulation from the realities of Africa as major drawbacks. I also was not a fan of the DVD version I watched it on, it’s the kind of film that has a grand, sweeping, epic feel that should probably been seen on a big screen, or at least a higher def version than what I saw. I feel it’s unfair to say the photography was a disappointment to me for this reason. I do really like Streep’s performance here; it’s the main highlight of the film if you ask me. I think the film is paced very deliberately, and not in a bad way, though there’s a sort of bland directorial hand at work that isn’t exactly awe-inspiring.
As with almost all best picture winners of the 1980s, Out of Africa won as a historical epic (that’s my theory anyway). Also nominated for best picture that year were Spielberg’s The Color Purple, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Prizzi’s Honor, and Witness (the only one of these I’ve seen). The film got a total of eleven nominations, taking home seven. Pollack beat out some of the greats including John Huston (Prizzi’s Honor) and Akira Kurosawa (Ran) for the best director trophy. Its other five wins were for cinematography, art direction, adapted screenplay, sound, and original score. Meryl Streep lost the best actress award to Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful, and Brandauer lost to Don Ameche in Cocoon for best supporting actor. Out of Africa also lost out on editing and costume design, but overall had a pretty good haul. I feel like Out of Africa won for the type of movie it is rather than the movie it is, but the eighties were a lean time for the Oscars. I like Back to the Future and Scorsese’s After Hours from that year, but in no universe are either of those Oscary movies.
“He likes giving gifts… but not at Christmas.”
Long story short: 3/4 stars
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