Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Out of Africa – Casting Questionable But Still a Stunning Picture

Written by Karen Blixen, Judith Thurman, Errol Trzebinski, and Kurt Luedtke
Directed by Sydney Pollack

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Let me state up front that I love Robert Redford. I adore him and find him to be wonderful in just about every film I’ve seen him in. However, as a charismatic ladies’ man at the turn of the 20th century in Africa, he just didn’t convince me.

Out of Africa is the story of Karen Christence Dinesen Blixen (portrayed by Meryl Streep). The film is adapted from the biography she penned in later years of the time she spent in Africa unsuccessfully running a coffee plantation.

At the time she travels to Africa, Karen is an “old maid” on her way out to Nairobi to marry Baron Blixen (portrayed by Klaus Maria Brandauer) when she encounters a big-game hunter. She is intrigued by the man but the train goes on its way, leaving the man behind. Her marriage is one of convenience. Her new husband needs an infusion of her money and she needs to regain some social standing by inheriting the title and the respect that comes with the marriage.

Later on, she learns the man is Denys Hatton (portrayed by Robert Redford), a free-spirited big-game hunter. Meanwhile, her husband has changed his mind and will use her money for a coffee plantation instead of the dairy farm he originally proposed. She encounters Denys again when she is being stalked by a lioness. He advises her how to gamely face down the animal.

There are problems both in her marriage and in her adaptation to Africa. She faces prejudices because of her nationality and her sex. Her husband is unfaithful and she finds that out in the most embarrassing of ways. During the time period of the first World War, the local law enforcement wishes to move her from her land into town, something she fiercely resists.

As the main focus of the film, Karen is a strong woman at a time when women were expected to be “wilting violets” and were often celebrated for their delicacy and elegance. Karen is a lady, of that there is no doubt, but she has an inner strength of character which helps her withstand disappointments and hardships which would have chased someone from the African plains early in the story.

Karen has great respect for the people who live on their property and help her work the land. She helps them medically and manages to talk their tribal chief into allowing the younger generation to learn to read. At the same time, she doesn’t force a drastic change in their tribal customs which many colonials attempted to do.

Meryl Streep is wonderful in the role. She pulls off the Danish accent beautifully with her lines and never seems to break character. Even in those moments when she is at her lowest, she manages to have quiet dignity throughout. Subjecting herself to the potential humiliation at the hands of the male colonists, her desperation is evident, but I got the feeling that she wasn’t feeling humiliated. It seemed as if she was doing what she had to do and if anyone thought less of her, that was their problem, not hers. In the end, I had the feeling she took the invitation into the male-only bar at the club for a drink only in deference to them, not because she appreciated the fact that they were allowing her once into their world. Streep carried herself with such a straight posture and made eye contact with none of them. It really was a telling moment, and the way Streep played it told that these people didn’t matter to her anymore. Where at the beginning she was concerned about her status in the world, by the end she had risen above it.

In contrast to that, Redford seems totally out of place. I don’t know if it’s a lack of chemistry with Streep or the fact that he has problems pulling off the role of a charismatic ladies’ man – I didn’t buy him in Indecent Proposal either – but his scenes with Streep are missing something. Even in the scenes where he’s first angling to seduce her after she’s emotionally drifting away from her husband, I couldn’t tell whether he was there as a friend or if he was there to seduce her until after it happened. He’s fine in the scenes on the plains, but not when he has to take on the role of the lover.

Klaus Maria Brandauer is much more convincing as the errant husband who is more like the brother Karen was dumped by than I thought at the beginning of the film. He’s convincing as a man who marries for convenience and believes the woman should be an accessory in her life, then gives little thought to her own well-being beyond that. He’s gotten what he wants and hardly gives her another thought beyond that.

I really wish Out of Africa could have been filmed digitally. The scenery is beautiful and though it’s a stunning picture, it would have been nice to have seen it in the crisp digital format. Either that or the restoration just wasn’t that good of a job. There were many scenes that seemed blurry or the colors washed out. Everyone talks about the cinematography and it’s a beautiful picture to view, but somewhere along the line in the process of transferring it to DVD, someone wither messed up or tried to take too many shortcuts on the job. I also found that while I had to turn up the volume to hear some of the conversations, the score would be blasting at me.

It was nice to learn how much information was known about two of the African characters in the film. Both Farah and Kumante were alive for years to come and Kumante consulted on the film itself. This is a nice testimony to the accuracy of the film as well as to the dedication that director Sydney Pollack took to get the story right.

I had never seen Out of Africa before my recent viewing and was sorry I waited so many years to view it. I found it to be beautiful and inspiring.

Bonus Materials:

• Song of Africa – Documentary about the making of the film and the real-life people this was based on
• Feature Commentary with Director Sydney Pollack
• Production Notes
• Cast & Filmmaker Biographies
• Theatrical Trailer
• Recommendations & Web Links

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