Review: Out of Africa

Meryl Streep stars as Danish woman Karen Blixen, on whose memoir (under a pen name) this film is based. Beginning in 1914, it tells the story of Blixen’s life married to aloof Baron Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and running their struggling coffee plantation and farm in Kenya while he’s mostly away on safari and womanising. Although there’s no great disharmony between the two (aside from him changing their dairy farm dream into a coffee plantation without consulting her), theirs is a marriage of convenience and friendship, not love, fidelity or romance. Keeping her company on occasion, however, is Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford), a British adventurer and hunter with designs on the married woman (and encourages her writing), but who also doesn’t want to be tied down. He also hates that his native Britain is ruling Africa in its own image, and tries to get Karen to understand this. Suzanna Hamilton plays Karen’s friendly neighbour Felicity, while Michael Gough and Leslie Phillips have small roles as Lord Delamere and local governor Sir Joseph, respectively.


Meryl Streep’s Danish accent sounds rather Germanic, but there’s no doubt that she and the wonderful scenery are the biggest highlights here in this 1985 Best Picture Oscar winner from director Sydney Pollack (“The Scalphunters”, “Absence of Malice”, “Tootsie”). Besides, how many of you really know what a Danish accent sounds like anyway? I’m not sure Streep really disappears into the character as such, but that’s not always essential, and she absolutely dominates the film with a strong performance. Even if you think, like Jerry Seinfeld does, that Meryl is a ‘phony baloney’, you simply can’t hate her here.


A good film, but an overrated and hardly surprising one, it might be a tad slow for some viewers. Along with “A Cry in the Dark”, this might be Streep’s finest showcase, and the somewhat underrated Klaus Maria Brandauer is pretty good in support as an aloof and deeply flawed, but not entirely bad man. Robert Redford is allegedly playing a Brit. Someone probably should’ve told him that (he’s not even trying an accent), but otherwise he’s charming enough and a good match for Streep. They are both easy to like, if not necessarily swallow. But one must look at this as an old-fashioned sort of film, not a docudrama. Think “The African Queen” (but more of a drama) meets 1984’s “Places of the Heart” (or even “Gone With the Wind”, with a far more sympathetic protagonist), and you’ll have an idea of what to expect here. It used to be that American stars would play all kinds of nationalities without attempting an accent, so there’s certainly precedent for Redford’s non-accent. I can certainly see why the handsome Redford was cast. He has value as a romantic lead and bonafide movie star, even if I’d have preferred a British actor, or someone who can be bothered trying an English accent on (If made in the 50s or early 60s one could see Aussie-born Peter Finch in such a role, actually or even Richard Burton. In 1985, maybe the only British option was someone like Roger Moore, which simply wouldn’t work).


The amazing thing is that it’s a Sydney Pollack film, when in every respect it seems like a David Lean film (“Lawrence of Arabia”, “Doctor Zhivago”), right down to the Oscar-winning music score by John Barry (“Goldfinger”, “Robin and Marian”, “Dances With Wolves”), doing his best Maurice Jarre (“Doctor Zhivago”, “Lawrence of Arabia”, “A Passage to India”, “Ryan’s Daughter”). It’s not Barry’s best score, but a good one and it has Oscar-winner all over it.


If I have any real problem with the film (aside from some disastrous blue-screen work, even for 1985) it’s that the Brandauer and Redford characters are interesting, but drift in and out of the film too much to really grasp them, especially in the first half. The second half at least gives us more scenes with Redford, and in my view is the strongest portion of the film. The film is also about 20-30 minutes too long for my liking. Never dull, just too much, so perhaps giving us more scenes with Brandauer would’ve made the film somewhat of a chore. And at least he gets a meatier part than the frankly useless roles Michael Gough and Leslie Phillips are given. Meanwhile, even though her character is likeable, Suzanna Hamilton’s performance as Felicity is pretty amateurish.


A mixture of epic romance, woman’s picture, and African scenery, the film seems to divide audiences today, boring some people senseless. I rather enjoyed it, and although Pollack is no David Lean, I didn’t find it boring, merely flawed, overlong, and  a bit overrated. You’ve seen this kind of thing countless times, too many for me to call this a masterpiece, but it’s still pretty solid. A great showcase for Streep, and the Oscar-winning cinematography of David Watkin (Richard Lester’s “The Three Musketeers” and “Robin and Marian”), but I bet it’s one of the Best Picture winners that is least well-remembered. The screenplay by former journalist Kurt Luedtke (“Absence of Malice”) also won an Oscar, and the film also won Oscars for Art Direction and Sound, whilst Streep and Brandauer were nominated for their considerable efforts.


NB: I’ve just read that initially Redford had indeed intended to play his aristocratic hunter character as an Englishman, and with a slight accent, but Pollack was against it and had him re-dub some of his lines. One wonders if he was just awful at the accent or if maybe Pollack should’ve let it stay in the film.


Rating: B-


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