Sunday 11 June 2017

Movie Review: Out Of Africa (1985)

A grand autobiographical romantic drama, Out Of Africa enjoys lavish scenery but is an otherwise slow moving and dreary tale.

It's the eve of the Great War. Desperate to leave her native Denmark, the wealthy but unattached Karen Dinesen (Meryl Streep) proposes a marriage of convenience to her titled but penniless friend Baron Bror von Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer). She gains the title of Baroness, he gains her money, and off they go to the wilds of Kenya where they purchase a farm and start a new life. On the long journey to her new home Karen meets for the first time big game hunters Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) and Berkeley Cole (Michael Kitchen).

Karen's marriage to Bror never gains traction, as he unilaterally makes the decision to switch from cattle farming to coffee crops, then he abandons her to pursue hunting expeditions before joining the war effort, leaving Karen to run the farm on her own for months on end. Karen is a feisty and independent woman and manages well, including establishing strong relations with the natives and starting better education programs for their children. On one of her few nights with Bror she contracts syphilis, final confirmation of his rampant womanizing.

In Bror's absence Karen's intermittent encounters with Denys and Berkeley grow warmer, and although at first Karen believes she is more interested in Berkeley, gradually Denys' independent charm starts to attract her attention. Bror finally gives up all pretense of a functioning marriage and moves out, providing an opening for Denys to initiate a serious courtship in pursuit of Karen's heart.

Directed by Sydney Pollack, Out Of Africa is based on Karen von Blixen's memoirs. The film is an example of a personal story given the full Hollywood-on-steroids treatment and amplified well beyond the strength of the original material. A simple story of a European woman carving out a new life in Africa is turned into a mythological opera of massive proportions, and prolonged to a mind-numbing 160 minutes.

The Academy decided that slow moving lyrical scenes equated to cinematic quality, and Out Of Africa scooped up seven Oscars, including Best Film and Best Director. The film wears the accolades uneasily. Apart from the many admittedly beautiful shots of African wildlife and landscapes, there is little to justify Out Of Africa as a landmark film experience. Streep's Danish-African accent hybrid is admirable, but ironically she was bypassed on Oscar night.

A large part of the film's problems reside in the thin material. Grand romantic dramas of this length require strong supporting characters and a turbulent, preferably historical backdrop to gain relevance. Out Of Africa offers nothing beyond Karen's lonely existence and the attempts to create substance out of her outreach to the local tribespeople are rudimentary at best. Denys is a marginal, almost tertiary character for the first half of the film (despite Redford receiving top billing), Bror abandons her early, and the First World War is a very distant event. The film becomes about Streep narrating her mundane adventures as she moves at a glacially slow pace towards allowing herself to open her heart to Denys. No amount of beautiful sunsets can hide the lack of content.

The pacing and emotions improve marginally once the romance finally catches fire, but Pollack then drags out the ending well past relevance, in an obsessive pursuit of creating a legend out of a love story. The film creaks and buckles under its own weight.

As enjoyable as a three hour slide show from top National Geographic photographers, Out Of Africa offers visually beauty in turgid packaging.

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1 comment:

  1. That's my take on this, too. It's pretty, but the romance is of the Harlequin variety, and it doesn't even start until the last hour of the film.

    Dull, dull, dull. But pretty.


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