1985 – Out of Africa

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Out of Africa – 1985

This was a good movie, though a slow one.  The plot was engaging, the acting was good, the music was gorgeous, and the themes grand.  The filming locations were exotic, the realism was very well done, and characters were subtle and believable.  I enjoyed watching it, well enough, though generally, I would say that it isn’t really my kind of film.  Meryl Streep and Robert Redford take the leads along with Austrian born actor, Klaus Maria Brandauer.  It would have been a great movie if it hadn’t been so slow.

Of course, Redford also did a good job, as he usually does.  He was good in previous Best Picture winner, The Sting.  But it seemed to me that he was playing the same character.  I’m beginning to think that he actually has a pretty limited range when it comes to acting.  True, he is very handsome and nice to watch, but I didn’t see him stretching himself as an actor.

But Meryl Streep can pretty much do no wrong in my eyes.  She took on a Dutch accent which she kept up very well throughout the entire film.  Accents are usually avoided for all but the most skilled actors because they are not easy to maintain.  Streep, however, had already proved that she was up to the task of carrying a believable accent, turning in a masterful performance in Sophie’s Choice three years earlier in 1982.  Again, she was wonderful to watch and she did a fantastic job.

Out of Africa was based on an autobiography written by Karen Blixen.  Streep played the part of Blixen, a Danish woman who has some money and is looking for a husband.  She ends up entering into a marriage of convenience with a good friend named Baron Bror Blixen, excellently played by Brandauer.  Together, they move to British Africa, what is now Kenya, with the intention of starting a dairy farm.  From then on, nothing goes right for Karen.  Nothing.  This is one of those plots that asks the question, “How much misery can we heap on our character without killing her?”

Interesting note:  Streep got the part by showing up for her meeting with director Sydney Pollack in a low-cut blouse and push-up bra, because he had originally thought she wasn’t sexy enough for the part.  Ironically, I didn’t really think that her character needed to be at all sexy.

Sure, Karen gains her husband’s title and is now the Baroness Blixen, but that is where the relationship effectively ends.  He takes her money and buys a coffee plantation instead of a dairy farm, which he has no intention of helping to run.  Instead, he wants to be a big-game hunter and leaves her alone to run the plantation alone for months at a time.  Unfortunately the coffee plants will not yield any kind of a harvest for four years, so he has effectively put them in financial difficulty right off the bat.  Add to that the fact that the marriage, at least for him, is a loveless one.  But she develops feelings for him anyway, and is surprised and hurt when she catches him cheating.  And how did she catch him?  Why,    he gives her syphilis, of course.  This does not kill her, but it does ensure that she can no longer have children.

Redford plays the role of Denys Finch Hatton.  He is a big-game hunter and friend of the Blixens.  As time goes by, and as bad things start happening to Karen, the friendship between her and Denys continues to develop.  Eventually the two become lovers.  The movie is billed as a romantic drama, and up until this point, there has been plenty of drama and very little romance.  But I must say that the romance, once it started happening, was very good.  The script was good, but it was made even more effective because of the good acting, especially Streep.

Sufficient time was given to the building of the relationship until it was natural that the two become lovers.  I’ve seen movies that are supposed to be romances that don’t do that, and the couple just jump into the sack together before you can turn your head.  But Streep and Redford had a nice on-screen chemistry that was nice to watch.

Interesting note:  The movie deviated from real life in several significant ways.  For example, Karen and Denys conceived at least one child together.  Unfortunately Karen suffered a miscarriage.  This doesn’t make sense, since the syphilis made Karen unable to have children.  So, in reality, she must have been cheating on her husband, Bror, before she contracted the disease from him.

The movie goes slowly on as more misfortune and tragedy are piled on top of Karen.  But the film also had the great English composer John Barry doing the soundtrack.  And let me tell you, it was an absolutely beautiful score.  One of my favorite scores to listen to is Dances With Wolves, another of Barry’s scores, and I could hear his personal style in the music for Out of Africa as well.  It was large and sweeping and very melodic.  Barry’s music has a feeling of simplicity about it that hides the true complex nature of the orchestral writing.  Just beautiful.

I also have to mention the costumes.  This was a period piece, taking place around the end of WWI.  Some of the scenes required period specific dresses for Streep and the other ladies to wear.  I especially liked some of the hats that she wore.  They even made a point of drawing attention to one of her hats in one scene, in which another woman mentions that she thinks the hat is hideous.  I actually liked that one.  Of course, the men were easy to clothe, for the most part.  Their tuxedos and safari clothing were comparable to anything that might be worn today.

The cinematography was also pretty noteworthy.  Pollack had some wonderful filming locations to work with.  Africa has some amazingly beautiful landscapes.  There were plenty of wide shots of the desert plains.  There was even a great sequence in which Karen and Denys went up in a biplane and looked down at the beauty of Africa.  They flew over herds of water buffalo and flocks of flamingos.  For anyone who has not seen these things in documentaries or videos, they are humongous.  It is actually surprising how large these masses of animals are.

Also, the depictions of the lions was pretty cool.  One thing I noticed that the director chose to do took place in a short scene in which Karen and Denys are attacked by lions.  Pollack showed the attack in slow motion so the audience could get a clear image of the charging beasts.  The large cats are beautiful when they are running and it was an effective little trick.  Unfortunately it took away the sense of danger inherent in the scene.  You couldn’t get an idea how fast the animals actually are when they attack their prey.  And the tension of the scene when both Karen and Denys calmly raised their guns and shot the lions down was undercut.  I think the sequence might have been better served if it showed the quickness of the attack and the calm-under-pressure reflexes of the characters involved.

But it also did something else that I didn’t particularly care for.  It just emphasized the slowness of the entire movie.  You see, as I was reading about the slow pace of the film, I found that it was a deliberate choice, and there was a reason for it.  Much of the film’s romantic subplot and the plot of the movie as a whole centered around Denys (and to some extent Bror as well) and his refusal to settle down.  Apparently life in South Africa moves at a slower pace than most of the world.  Denys loved the slower, calmer lifestyle that he had become accustomed to.  This was reflective of the South African natives and their nomadic ways.

And once again, I find it interesting that the British are there, trying to make the rest of the world like itself rather than leaving them alone and letting them live their own lives in peace.  For some reason the Brits have a history of arrogance, thinking that they are the only civilized nation on earth and wherever they go, they want to force the natives to adopt their civilized ways for their own good, whether they want it or not.

Well, by the end of the film, Karen has endured such loss, betrayal, sickness, and misfortune that it comes as no surprise that she loses Denys as well.  There was one line that she uttered during one of Denys’ brief visits which I found very telling of the entire film.  She said, “When the gods want to punish you, they answer your prayers.”  I’m pretty sure it meant that we never know what is really good for us.  As a result, what we want will more than likely be bad for us.  So don’t want anything too good for yourself.  It’s just going to get you into trouble.  A pretty pessimistic view, to be sure, but then look at what her character had already endured.  A bit of pessimism is understandable.

Still, the movie was very pretty to look at and very pretty to listen to, and the romance between Karen and Denys was pretty engaging.  But it just moved too slow for my tastes.  Pick up the pace just a little bit and I would have liked it even more.

Interesting note:  This is taken directly from Wikipedia.  “Among the various props used in the movie, the compass that Redford gives to Streep was Denys Finch Hatton’s actual compass. Unfortunately, it was stolen during the production. As guns (real, toys and replicas) are illegal in Kenya, Redford’s papier mache pistol was confiscated at the end of production and has since been seen as a rental item in subsequent stage productions in Nairobi.”

Another interesting note:  Supermodel Iman had a small role in the latter half of the film as Mariammo, the African lover of Denys’ friend.

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