I’ve always thought the “Out of Africa” was going to be a slow, endless snooze-fest about a woman finding her true self in the wilds of Africa.
This time, I’m so glad to be wrong.
Yes, a foreign woman, Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) ends up the owner of a farm in Africa in 1913. She proposes a marriage of convenience with her friend Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer) so he will have money and she will have a title. She joins him in Kenya, where he has set up a coffee plantation.
While there, she makes all the stupid mistakes a newcomer can make, and at times she’s almost willfully ignorant of customs and rituals, but she’s a good enough person to both learn and grow. Part of that growing is at first falling in (and out of) love with Bror, and then falling in love with Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford).
The love story is the backbone of the movie, and probably the number one reason guys just aren’t going to love this movie. Their loss; as love stories go, it’s a pretty good one. The director, Sydney Pollack, really knows what he’s doing with these kinds of stories (he also directed “The Way We Were”), and he has just the right touch for the material. It’s hard to pin down in words, but their romance is adult, deeply emotional and thoroughly real.
That relationship is the drive of the movie, but the real story here, taken from Blixen’s memoir, is her love affair with Africa. She arrived in Kenya as a smiling conqueror, risking everything to get more money and some adventure from the place, and along the way she discovers a way of life that is on the cusp of destruction. For better or worse, it’s gone now, and she realizes toward the end that she played a part in its ends. Pollack and company explore the theme without overtly applying the white-guilt and heavy-handedness, a minor miracle in a film that could have easily gone that route (I can applaud the intention, but good movies are not made from that impulse).
What really, totally sells the film are the performances of Streep and Redford. For the 160 minutes of the film, these actors suck you in to their characters’ stories and don’t let go. While the Danish accent she adopts can be a bit off-putting, Streep can convey so much in just a look that her character is never remote. We are always right there with her. Redford is considerably more remote than his counterpart, but that’s the character he’s playing; you never doubt Denys’ love and devotion, even when you doubt his strength of character.
“Out of Africa” has its faults, but it’s worth seeing, as a time capsule if nothing else. Hollywood doesn’t make films like this anymore, and that’s probably for the best. They’d just frak it up.
“Out of Africa” (1985)
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Written by Kurt Luedtke
Starring: Meryl Streep (Karen)
Robert Redford (Denys)