Truly Great Movies – Out of Africa (1985)
“All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” – Isak Dinesen (Baroness Karen Blixen)
Isak Dinesen (whose real name was Karen Blixen) never considered herself to be an author, nor was her original novel Out of Africa intended to be a straight-forward memoir. Dinesen considered herself to be a storyteller, not an author. The two (as Dinesen’s biographer, Judith Thurman is quick to point out) are quite different. Out of Africa, as both a “fableized” memoir and a film, has taken real aspects of this remarkable woman’s life and altered them to tell a more poignant overall love story.
The love between Karen Blixen and British adventurer Denys Finch Hatton was quite real. He was a notorious womanizer (one of his other loves was aviatrixand socialite Beryl Markham), but in Blixen he found his soul mate. Although he would never truly commit to her, she was the most stable and constant friend and lover in his muddled and crazy existence. Their love story would begin in the Ngong hills of Kenya in 1914 and last until a few months before his death in a tragic plane crash in 1931.
Director Sydney Pollack boiled the basic plot of Dinesen/Blixen’s Out of Africa down to two basic elements: Karen’s love for the land and the people of Kenya, and her love for Denys. Both Dinesen and Finch-Hatton shared an undeniable and everlasting respect for the magic and culture of Africa. It would bring them together, yet also forever separate them.
In the film, Karen (played by Meryl Streep) comes to Kenya in 1914 to marry her friend and distant relative, the lazy but charming Baron Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer). It is not a love match. Karen, at 28, is a bit long in the tooth (virtually a spinster for the times) and looking to escape from her native Denmark. In Africa, she would find the love of her life, set against the challenge of building a struggling coffee plantation.
While in Africa, Karen earns the respect and love of the local Kikuyu tribe. She becomes a caring, if not entirely business-minded landlord and employer. The cinematography in the film is spectacular (it could very well be considered the most important “character” in the movie), and Pollack wisely and importantly chose to film in and around the real Ngong hills of Kenya, even using real descendants of Karen’s Kikuyu workers to play their own ancestors in the film. It’s a moving and nostalgic touch.
The real focus of the film, however, is Karen’s romance with Denys. Robert Redford was not the ideal choice to play the skinny, balding Finch-Hatton, who in real life owed most of his conquests to his charm rather than his looks. Still, Pollack gave up on trying to coach Redford into a Brit accent (in some scenes traces of his attempts remain) or a Brit demeanor. Redford’s performance does accurately and importantly serve as a foil to Streep’s Karen. He is the water to her fire, the realist to her dreamer. It is the success of this delicate balance between two equals who are at the same time opposites that makes the film a successful romantic epic.
Karen’s life in Africa moves at a slow, leisurely pace, as does her love story. Each minor character serves to accent Karen’s own story, and all of them are well-written and dimensional, most notably Berkeley Cole (Michael Kitchen), who patiently serves as Denys’s best friend and Karen’s trusted advisor.
The music, artfully composed by John Barry, is as epic and sweeping as the landscape of Kenya itself, changing tempo and mood with the characters and events of the story.
The tragic ending is true to real life (even the timing is exactly how it played out in Dinesen’s own story) and a powerfully moving tribute to the end of the colonial age in Africa. The days of the Happy Valley set and the “playground of the hills” would soon come to an end, and tribal conflicts and world wars would disperse the European colonists who had called Ngong home. The real life Karen Blixen would never return to her beloved Africa, preferring instead to remember it always as she viewed it in her memory.
The film is a touching and fitting tribute to the memory of Karen and Denys’s unique and great love.
For a true treat, read Dinesen’s book first, then watch the film. It would be an enjoyable weekend escape.