Out of Africa

Karen Dinesen (Meryl Streep) is a wealthy, unmarried woman in Denmark in the 1910s. In her circle, an unmarried woman is deemed unseemly, so she marries her friend, Baron Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer), on the basis that she will become a baroness and he will share her wealth. The two move to Africa (I think it’s Kenya) with intentions of starting a dairy, but unbeknownst to Karen her new husband has changed all the plans to growing coffee instead. He proves to be an inadequate husband, always being away hunting whilst his wife is left home with nothing to do, as whenever she tries to help out with the work the local staff are confused at her presence. Enter Denys (Robert Redford), a big game hunter who at first becomes friends with Karen, along with another man, Michael Kitchen’s Berkeley, but soon, inevitably, starts a relationship with her too.5704_4_1080pI’m really not all that sure what Out of Africa is about. Yes, that’s a rough plot synopsis above, but it tells a story that doesn’t go anywhere, which is filled with not a great deal, yet somehow manages to take almost two and a half hours to tell. There doesn’t appear to be any end goal, no arcing plotline, no obstacle to overcome. Yes, Karen’s marriage isn’t amazing, and neither necessarily is the relationship she develops with Denys, but this is more of a documenting of events than a structured narrative. Similarly, there’s some hinting that Karen’s motivations are supposed to be to prove herself to the sour-faced men who kick her female behind out of their clubhouse at the start of the film, but this is only clear in retrospect, after a scene very near the end, at which point it seemed the results weren’t what she’d aimed for, but were merely a happy bi-product.
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There’s some character development with regards to Karen’s attitude towards the indigenous Africans in her new home – when arriving on the train, she attempts to shoo them away when they climb on top of the crates carrying her luggage – and a little bit of fish-out-of-water stuff – she wants her house staff to wear white gloves when serving at the table, regardless of their lack of adequate friction – but nothing ever really goes anywhere. It’s basically a character study under the guise of an epic historical romance, and literally none of that describes the kind of movies I like.
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Some elements look like they’re going to lead somewhere – Karen’s thick European accent leads some of the other people within her circle of society to doubt her allegiances when the First World War breaks out – but inevitably just trail off into a semi-resolved state, as if the script writers got bored of that strand and went off to write something else instead. Actually, given how dreary the whole thing is, I’m pretty sure that’s what actually happened.
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The performances are great, so credit where it’s due. Streep plays it very straight, focussing more on nailing the accent than anything else, but it’s Redford who turns out to be a joy. His Denys is jovial yet tender, with occasional comedic quips to break the tedium. There’s also small roles for the likes of Michael Gough and Leslie Phillips.
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The scenery is predictably beautiful, so there’s that, and there’s even a segment that seemed to be shot entirely for the African tourist board as an advert for their country, featuring two characters going on an aeroplane flight to showcase the incredible views and wildlife that can be found on the plains. Also I approved of the none-too-subtle shots of the gun rack in the house, which fills or empties with regards to other events that take place. It’s all spelled out a little too clearly, but I approve nonetheless.
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Alas, good scenery and a few decent performances are not enough to save a film. This is nothing more than a small, underwritten story – many things happen with no hope of an explanation, they just simply are – that’s been overblown to a scale far beyond what it deserves. I’ve just checked, and I’m astounded that this won seven academy awards, including Best Picture and Director. I highly disagree and, given that Back to the Future was inexplicably absent from those categories, I hereby decree that the 1986 Academy Awards should be scrubbed from the record. As far as I’m concerned, they never took place.

Choose Life 5/10

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8 thoughts on “Out of Africa

  1. Despite the fact that this is one of my favorite films of all time, your review makes me think you’re missing the context of this film. Today, there’s an entire suburb of Nairobi (yes, this is Kenya) named Karen in Blixen’s honor. Her attempt to fight for the rights of the Kikuyu, both to be educated and to retain some rights to their land, is a subtle secondary story throughout the film, from her discussions with the locals about building a pond, to discussions with the local chief about educating the children, and working with her house staff on being good “European staff” vs good Kenyan. The fact that she was a woman who fought (mostly successfully) for these things is not lost throughout the film, and Karen and Denys’ discussions about the changing nature of Kenya is a big part of seeing that. The primary story of Karen and Denys’ relationship is slow and definitely flies in the face of what would have been traditional at the time – turn of the century European women didn’t expect to have to DO anything, and Karen is left to run her estate, staff, and support both herself and her husband.

    I’m sorry it didn’t land for you, but I hope you’ll at least look at it again (in your mind if not rewatching) from a perspective incorporating the historical context they are describing. They don’t hammer you over the head with the significance of each of these events and moments, they leave it up to the viewer to understand them.

    • I apologise for being so negative in the review Jess. Also, I’m honoured to have you comment on my site, given how big a fan I am of yours and Rachel’s podcast, I wrote this review a little hurriedly, trying to reach a self-imposed deadline, so I unwittingly skipped the parts about how Africa was changing around the characters, and how interesting that was to me, with it all taking place in a part of the world whose history I regrettably know nothing about,

      My minor issue is perhaps how the significance of the changes wasn’t made clear in the film. You say it is left up to the viewer to understand them, which I’d accept if they weren’t steeped in a meandering and seemingly fruitless romance.

      I don’t expect to sway you’re opinion, and I wouldn’t want to. It seems (judging from the other comments) that I’m not alone in disliking this film, but I’m pretty sure you’re right, and I’m missing a major context of the film. I think one’s tolerance for romance stories has an effect on one’s tolerance for this film overall and, alas, I’ve never been a big fan of romance in movies. Sorry about that, I just don’t think this one is for me.

      Thank you again for commenting, I do value your opinion and appreciate your enlightening me of other viewpoints on the film that I might not otherwise have considered.

  2. I didn’t really like the movie too much when I saw it on cable in the late 1980s.

    A few years later, I read the book that it’s based on and I loved the book. It made me kind of angry at the movie for squandering the potential of the book merely to enlarge Redford’s role so they could fashion it into something resembling a romance.

    I wouldn’t give the movie too much credit just because the book is great,

    • Based on my opinion of the movie, it’s very unlikely that I’ll get around to reading the book, if only because I’ve got probably over a hundred books already that I need to get around to reading sometime, and that list only seems to be getting longer! Once I finish the 1001 Movies list (maybe that should be “if”) my next project will be getting through those books!

  3. I’m with you on this. When I reviewed this, I called it a Harlequin romance with pretty scenery, and I stand by that assessment. It’s too slow, doesn’t really go anywhere, and even the romance that should be at the heart of the film takes two hours to get started.

    Maybe I’m giving it short shrift, but I felt like I would’ve gotten just as much from a good nature documentary on Kenya.

    • Thank you for introducing me to the term “Harlequin romance”, I’d never come across that before you commented on my weekly update post.

      Judging from Jess’ comment above, this perhaps shouldn’t be viewed as a straight romance, but that’s how it was billed to me, so that’s how I saw it and so, like you, this just didn’t work, because the romance is bland.

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