Out of Africa is a biopic based on the book of the same title written by Karen Blixen in 1937 which documents the 17 years that the Danish writer spent in Kenya between 1914 and 1931. In 1985, Sidney Pollack (a true artist who knew how to work both in front of and behind the camera) directed this two-hour and forty-minute film based on a screenplay by Kurt Luedtke who also used other writings by Blixen, as well as two other works about her written by Judith Thurman and Errol Trzebinski, respectively.
The protagonists of the film are Meryl Streep, Robert Redford and Klaus Maria Brandauer but, since the story develops over 17 years, there are a lot of secondary actors and actresses among which Michael Gough and Suzanna Hamilton stand out. The film won, among other awards, seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score (by John Barry), and Best Cinematography.
The mere length of my introduction is proportional to that of the film. I repeat: it’s 160 minutes long! Honestly, it cost me a lot to stay awake all the time, as the film felt exasperatingly slow, with no real thrilling story to follow, and too fragmented to hold my interest. A thousand things happen but I didn’t get excited about any of them, the love story between the two protagonists begins after an hour and twenty (so much so that it almost feels like two different films: the first is about Karen beginning her African adventure, and the second one is the love story) and, let me tell you, it’s not even that great of a love story. It’s very similar to that of The Bridges of Madison County (1995, also starring Meryl Steep), but it doesn’t even come close to the power of the story directed by Clint Eastwood.
So, what happens in Out of Africa? Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) goes to Kenya to start an economic adventure and a marriage with a friend: she’s an independent woman, she doesn’t want someone to treat her just as a beautiful companion, and most of all she wants freedom. She actually gets too much of the latter since her husband Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer) is not interested in the coffee plantation and has sex with anyone who comes within reach, so much so that he also infects poor Karen with syphilis affecting her ability of having children. At a certain point, the two separate and she begins an affair with hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford, who was still in great shape at 49 years old) who’s free-spirited and therefore shuns monogamy and the whole concept of marriage. And here I stop to avoid spoilers.
The film does many things well: it was shot in the places where Blixen really lived, there are many local actors interpreting the people who lived on her property (the chieftain is the grandson of the chieftain who lived there fifty years earlier!), the images of the savannah are splendid, the animals are incredible, the soundtrack is pleasant, there sunsets shots are gorgeous…
But my problem is with the script! The film doesn’t know where to go and goes there at an uncertain pace. It mixes the vicissitudes of the plantation with short scenes here and there with the story between Karen and Bror which is simply dull. It’s as if Pollack had been mesmerized by the splendid landscapes he filled the film with until he forgot to tell an actual story. Then, halfway through the film (that is, after an hour and twenty, which is almost the duration of a normal film), everything changes with the love story with Denys which is… cold. In the second half, there’s a series of four or five dialogues in a row all very similar to each other (even shot in the same way: shot, reverse shot, shot, reverse shot…) and I don’t know how I didn’t miraculously fall asleep. The dialogues aren’t even that interesting! Denys talks about freedom in an almost philosophical way, Karen appears as a strong woman, they disagree on marriage, end, repeat, end repeat…
I really didn’t get this movie, so much so that I didn’t cry at all (and in this period I cry at any movie!). Perhaps it was the dialogues that took away the emotion from the story: Denys always has the perfect sentence at all times, he’s progressive to the point of excess (he reminded me of the Brad Pitt character in 12 Years a Slave, 2013), he quotes poems by heart… Yet, he’s a hunter and kills elephants, lions, etcetera. I couldn’t possibly empathize with him (I know that at the beginning of the XX century animal rights were non-existent, but I wonder about the realism of the hunter-poet character).
Poor Karen is progressive in a more traditional way (for example, she wants the natives to learn to read and write because she thinks of them as ignorant, and Denys disagrees with her on that), and it’s easier to identify with her: after all, she just wants a life together with the one she loves while continuing to work hard as an independent woman.
To conclude, I guess the story is OK, but it’s interspersed with too many other things like breathtaking images or useless dialogues about the price of coffee. I don’t think it’s a particularly great movie, and I think that the choice of narrating 17 years of a person’s life wasn’t a happy choice. I would’ve preferred a shorter film (cutting at least an hour, I’d say) focusing only on one aspect of Blixen’s African adventure, such as the story with Denys or her marriage, or the plantation vicissitudes. Or maybe it’s just me having problems with movies set in Africa and winning too many Oscars (like The English Patient, 1996). Ciao!