Out of Africa: Streep Shines

If you’ve followed this blog with any regularity, then you know that I love history. I love it so much, in fact, that I’ll prefer to read books about history, rather than fictional stories taking place in galaxies far, far away. I’m not an expert on any one area of history, I’ll admit that, but I like to think that my knowledge is very broad.

 One of the more interesting and consistent threads throughout all of human history has been the role of Africa. It’s true that man’s oldest ancestors came from deep within its shores, but that does not mean that Africa has had a fair shake in history. Obviously, once the “new world” was discovered by Europeans, Africa became the key source of slaves in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Then, various Europeans moved into the continent and subjugated Africa’s many, many tribes and bent most of them to their will, or more “reformed” ways. In short, most of Africa’s history, from a human perspective, is very sinister. 

But that does not take away from Africa’s beauty, diverse human and wildlife populations, nor its smorgasbord of climatic zones. For as long as recorded history, we’ve had a fascination with Africa. This is due to the many reasons I’ve already listed above. It’s fair to say that even though the history of the people of Africa is one of pain, caused mostly by Europeans, the place still holds a sort of imaginative interest. 

Out of Africa, Sydney Pollack’s 1985 Best Picture winner, takes us deep into Africa, in British-occupied Kenya, to be exact. The film explores life on the African frontier through the eyes of a Dutch baroness, Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) and a free-spirited American guide, Deny Finch Hatten (Robert Redford). Over sweeping vistas of Kenya’s steppes, plains, and mountains, Out of Africa takes us on a journey right into the heart of Africa.

 It is, however, once of those movies that tries to fit in too much in such a short time, even though it’s nearly three hours in length. It is a film that is brilliantly acted, stunningly shot, and horribly paced. From the start, Out of Africa failed to grab and keep my attention through it’s entire 161-minute run time.

Now, for the rest of the movie.

 

Plot/Writing

 

Out of Africa begins in 1913 with Karen Blixen, an unmarried and wealthy Danish woman who moves to Kenya to be with her new husband, Baron Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer). On the way to her new home, Karen meets Denys Finch Hatton, who gives her ivory to deliver to a mutual friend. 

Setting up a coffee farm with her new husband, Karen learns to love Kenya and befriends local members of the Kikuyu people, who are living on her husband’s land. When World War I breaks out, and her Bror must leave to fight, Karen learns that she has contracted syphilis due to her husband’s illicit affairs. She is forced to return to Denmark to heal.

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After she returns to Africa, and with her marriage crumbling, Karen strikes up a relationship with Denys, falling in love with him and his independent spirit and charisma. Denys charms Karen with fancy dinners on the savannah and he even becomes a pilot and buys a biplane to show her around.

The film is based loosely on the book “Out of Africa,” Karen Blixen’s autobiography written under her pseudonym Isak Dinesen, published in 1937. It was adapted into a screenplay by Kurt Luedtke, which won Best Adapted Screenplay. 

In general, I’d describe the film’s story to be one about a romance in an epic and stunning environment, which is at its heart. However, the film lacks narrative complexity, as the world in which Karen and Denys inhabit is exceedingly complicated. In other words, Out of Africa tries very hard to be an epic film, but a film about extra-marital affairs is not an epic. Time and again in this blog, I’ve seen epics that can have a myriad of meanings and comment on several items about life. Good versus evil, traditionalism versus progressivism, among other themes. Not Out of Africa.

There is enough plot here to spawn a 10-episode Netflix series, and I think that if the movie were remade today, that’s what it would end up being. Karen’s story is gritty and inspiring, but when told incorrectly, then the plot suffers. 0. 0.  

Set Design 

Out of Africa won the Oscar for Best Art Direction and was nominated for Best Costume Design.

On the design side, Out of Africa is right up there with many of the best films that I’ve reviewed as part of this project. I love a good, immersive set, and the film delivers. From start to finish, the film is ambitious and over-the-top. 

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For the costumes, the attention to detail is equally over the top. The clothing is perfectly set against the era and it’s a master class in practical fashion design. It’s interesting, though, to think about this film in comparison with Gigi. Both these films take place in a similar era, in terms of general European fashion trends, but both these movies have starkly different approaches to costuming. Whereas Gigi is bright, flamboyant, and flirtatious, Out of Africa is utilitarian, “beige,” and useful. I’m not too bent out of shape about this difference. It’s easy to wear colorful and fashionable clothing on the streets of Paris than in the wilds of Africa. 1. 

Sound

Winning an Academy Award for Best Original Score was John Barry. If you read my review of Dances with Wolves, then you know my love of John Barry, and this film is right out of the middle of his bag of tricks.

In Dances with Wolves Barry helped create, along with brilliant cinematography and the natural openness of the American west, a sense of wonder, awe, and adventure, even while facing challenges of life and death. John Dunbar’s life in the west sounds exactly like you believe it should with wide-open and sweeping scores. The score brings to the surface the “romance” of the wild west that lives in the inner child in all of us.

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Barry accomplishes the same thing here, just five years before. With Africa’s exceedingly perilous past, the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about the place is exploration. Therefore, I think it’s important for the score of a movie to reflect that idealization. Thanks in part to his score, I can still feel far away from home, even while social distancing. 1. 

Cinematography

David Watkin was the Director of Photography for Out of Africa and the effort won him one of the film’s seven statuettes.

From early on, it’s evident that Out of Africa was meant to be seen on a widescreen, with Watkin using every single square inch of the frame that he could. I believe that films that try to present themselves as “big” should definitely not scrimp on the details. You’ve already got six scoops of ice cream in the bowl, what’s another one? In many instances, Watkin does indeed go for it. This is particularly true when Denys takes Karen flying.

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But I’ve become spoiled with other great “big” films like The Deer Hunter, Lawrence of Arabia, and Dances with Wolves to give Out of Africa truly high marks in this category. It’s true that Watkin flexes his muscle when he wants to, but he doesn’t do it nearly enough. Still, I think I’m probably picking nits. I can’t hold a good job against him here. 1. 

Acting

For all the Oscars that Out of Africa took home, perhaps the most surprising of the ones that it didn’t win was the Best Actress for Meryl Streep. For being an American woman, Streep can play a Dutch woman very well. I was surprised that I was surprised about that. She’s amazing.

Streep plays the main character, Karen Blixen, and it is through her mastery of acting that we can truly step into Karen’s shoes: the love gained, the love lost, and the life gone awry.

When we first meet Karen, she’s an old woman, reflecting somewhat nostalgically on her life and her little house at the base of Ngong Hills. Early in her life, she was tired of spending her days hunting pigeons or going to fancy European dinners in Denmark. She wanted life and adventure.

Streep’s brilliance in this film is a three-headed dog, the Cerberus of damn fine acting. Firstly, she makes Karen Blixen seem a sweet and caring woman, sympathetic to the struggles of those who she may perceive as less fortunate. But she’s not some snooty rich European who pities the native tribe that she meets. Instead, she is respectful of their ways, learning something of their customs and traditions, and all she asks is that they learn some of her, too. She establishes a school so the children, and even the adults, may learn to read and write so they may better interact with the English.

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Second comes from the courage that Karen has in her, lying dormant throughout much of the first third to half of the film. Karen’s discovery of her gumption is a shock both to the audience and to Karen herself, thanks to Streep’s great acting. Whether it is personally escorting a wagon of supplies through hundreds of miles of harsh Kenyan wilderness, facing down syphilis, or even beginning an extra-marital affair of her own, Karen shows remarkable abilities, fortitude, practicality, and resourcefulness.

Finally, Streep has a way of just becoming the character like no one else I see on the screen. I’ve seen her in many, many films over my life, some of them on this list, but every single time I watch her on-screen, I have an easier time suspending my disbelief and thinking that she is the actual character and not just Meryl Streep. In Out of Africa, she nails this performance. Karen’s little subtleties, her details, come flying off the screen thanks to Streep. I won’t say that this is her best performance, but this one is right up there.

Opposite Streep is the great Robert Redford. We last saw Redford in The Sting, the Best Picture winner between the two Godfather films of the early 1970s. Here, Redford plays the free-spirited American hunter and guide Denys Finch Hatton.

As such, he’s a difficult man to pin down in one spot. Guarded, but charismatic, Denys calculates each move he makes with a measured logic that I love. Always the opportunist, Denys is more than happy to take on any new challenge, including leading dangerous hunts, learning to fly, and befriending locals. His coolness under pressure literally saves Karen’s life too.

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Redford brings his own coolness to the character, to, breathing logic and charm into Karen’s mysterious lover. Redford was truly a pleasure to watch on-screen, and he, along with Streep, are two of the movie’s highest marks. 1. 

Directing

Taking home an Oscar for Best Director was American director Sydney Pollack.

When I was thinking back on this film, I couldn’t help but think that it was more of a love letter to the continent itself, and in some cases, I suppose that’s true. Karen Blixen ended up loving and longing for not just the “idea” of Africa, but the physical place too.

I also couldn’t help but think about how the film relates to some American westerns or at least the idea of the American West. I touched on this idea earlier when discussing John Barry’s score and that it made me think of Dances with Wolves: one man’s journey to find himself out amongst the buffalo and under a dazzling starry sky. Karen’s story is somewhat the same too.

On the surface, Out of Africa has everything you want out of a good epic film: stunning cinematography, grand score, perfect costuming, and incredible acting. And those things in themselves can normally make for a decent film. And Out of Africa is a decent film.

At the end of the day, though, Out of Africa fails due to the man who was charged to take it from a script to the big screen. When the credits finally rolled after I spend 161 minutes watching it, I was left wondering how my life had changed after I finished it.

The film had many great reviews upon its release, with Roger Ebert giving it four stars out of four, calling it one of the better recent epics. I hate to think of epics that Out of Africa beat in Ebert’s mind.

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My problem with Out of Africa was that I was too lost in the spectacle and the pizzazz to notice, or even care about the characters and the story. Even Meryl Streep is not enough to overcome the film’s flaws. The film is, truth be told, too long and way too slow. I don’t mind slow films, and I don’t mind long ones, but too long and too slow is a deadly combination. I don’t hate this film for other reasons like I hated films like Gigi or The Greatest Show on Earth. By the time Laci and I were about 100 minutes in, I was warming up the woodchipper so I might stick my head in it. It’s obvious that Pollack tried too hard by, ironically, not trying hard enough.  I don’t need 100 minutes of exposition in the film. I have better things to do with my time.

The film has several arms that hold on to bits of the plot that really aren’t important. At times, it can resemble a Hindu deity with many arms. But those arms just aren’t needed. We don’t really need to see Karen encounter a band of Massai warriors on the way to deliver supplies to her husband. We never see them again. In fact, most of the middle of the movie is so unimportant that I can’t even remember enough examples that I can use to cite as to how unimportant it is. Sure, it’s great that Karen saw and did these things, but let your editor to his job.

At the end of the day, there is clearly much to like about Out of Africa, particularly on a technical side, and I won’t argue with that. But, by the time the credits rolled across our television, I was not only relieved it was done, that the slog was over, but that I was sure that my life will be exactly the same after having watched it than it was before. The only thing I know for sure is that I watched it and that it was a movie. Outside of that, I can’t really say that Out of Africa made me feel one thing or another. It just exists in space, in the black void between my ears. That, to me, is the most damaging argument against any film. At least other films made me feel something, even if that was hatred or confusion. Out of Africa had none of that. Because of that, Sydney Pollack has failed the audience. 0.

Bonus Points

I’ll give a point for the acting.

Final Score: 5/10.

Oscar Facts

Out of Africa won the 58th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 24, 1986, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. It beat out The Color Purple, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Prizzi’s Honor, and Witness for Best Picture. The award was presented by John Huston, Akira Kurosawa, and Billy Wilder, and accepted by director/producer Sydney Pollack. In total, Out of Africa received 11 nominations and seven Oscars, most of the evening. 

William Hurt won Best Actor, Geraldine Page won Best Actress, Don Ameche won Best Supporting Actor, and Anjelica Huston won Best Supporting Actress. Hosted by Alan Alda, Jane Fonda, and Robin Williams, the ceremony received the lowest ratings of any Oscar broadcast at the time. 

Next Up

I was supposed to do Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet for this review. I borrowed a copy from the library right before it closed due to COVID-19. However, the librarian didn’t unlock the case. The library is closed and the film is not available on streaming services at this time. So I’ll squeeze it in later. 

Next up, I’ll review Bong Joon-ho’s history-making film, Parasite, the most recent Best Picture winner. After that, it’s Ordinary People, Oliver!, Tom Jones, All the King’s Men, before finishing the 1930s with Cimarron. 

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