Out of Africa (United States, 1985)

May 28, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Out of Africa Poster

Watching Out of Africa a quarter of a century after its release, it's almost impossible to guess how it won the Oscar for Best Picture. There's little doubt that this is a feast for the eyes and ears. The pairing of John Barry's lush score with David Watkin's poetic cinematography is worth the price of admission. Would that the story, based on the memoirs of Isak Denesen (the nom de plume of Karen Blixen), warranted equal praise. There's nothing wrong with Out of Africa. Sydney Pollack's direction is quietly competent and the acting by Meryl Streep and Robert Redford is top notch. But the lazy story is little more than an ordinary melodrama that simmers without ever reaching a boil. To tell the truth, during the entirety of the movie's nearly three-hour running length, I was more interested in the scenery and Barry's music than I was in the characters. Yet, in large part because of the talent involved, this became THE prestige picture of 1985, and the Academy treated it as such.

Pollock used the films of David Lean (with perhaps a little Terrance Malick sprinkled in) as the template for Out of Africa. It should come as no surprise that during the movie's long, tortured history to make it to the screen, Lean was once attached as the director. The primary difference between this movie and the best of Lean (Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind) is one of depth and breadth. Lean made sprawling, epic period pieces that, despite their vast scope, never lost sight of the characters. Out of Africa, on the other hand, revels in its essential smallness. It's about two characters, their love for each other and the place where they live, and not much else. Although the story progresses through the first World War, the film's treatment of the global conflict is cursory. It's background material. Watching Out of Africa, one gets a sense of stasis and isolation - as if the events occurring are happening outside of time and space, in some small corner of the world untouched by the march of human progress.

The meticulously researched screenplay is based on the true life stories of Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep). She lived on a coffee plantation in Kenya beginning in 1913, when she arrived, newly married to her best friend, Baron Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer). While there, she ran the farm, which was always on the verge of bankruptcy, divorced her husband after numerous instances of infidelity on his part, and engaged in a long-term love affair with adventurer Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford). After the plantation finally failed in 1931, she returned to her native Denmark, where she became a world-renowned author (one of her best-known books was Babette's Feast, upon which the movie of the same name was based). Out of Africa concentrates upon the period between 1913 and 1931, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between Karen and Denys. It's in the depiction of the love affair that the movie disappoints. Pollack's approach to the romance is understated and intellectual. While his actors are at the top of their game and their characters are nicely rendered, there's no sense of passion. Simple human emotion gets lost in Out of Africa's grandeur and pretentions of greatness.

In many ways, Out of Africa is a throwback motion picture - one whose staid approach to love and sex owes much to the days when the Hays Code was in effect. For his part, Redford has made his share of emotionally fulfilling love stories (The Horse Whisperer, which he also directed, comes to mind). The same can be said of Meryl Streep, whose The Bridges of Madison County paired her with Clint Eastwood to heartbreaking effectiveness. However, in Out of Africa, the match between Redford and Streep gives us great acting but not great romance. With one notable exception - while the two are on safari near the beginning of their relationship - their love affair fails to take flight with the abandon of Denys' biplane. Perhaps this is what happens when a location becomes more compelling than the characters whose lives are unfolding across its canvas.

Although criticism can be leveled at Pollock for the low-key (and at times unsatisfactory) manner in which he chooses to depict the film's central relationship, it's impossible to fault the masterful manner in which he shows off Africa. Even an IMAX travelogue would be hard-pressed to be this captivating. There are scenes of astounding beauty: herds of wildlife photographed from ground level (during the safari) and from the air (when Denys takes Karen for a trip in his new plane). As beautiful as the images are, it's John Barry's transformative score that shifts the balance of these scenes from captivating to majestic. Aware of the power of such sequences, Pollack allows them to linger, which is the correct choice. We're in no rush to get back to the unremarkable interplay between Karen and Denys, who are forever arguing about his commitment (or lack thereof) to her.

Much has been made of the subtle eroticism of the scene in which Denys washes Karen's hair, and how this seemingly innocent moment is charged with sexuality. The incident is nicely filmed (and is arguably the one moment during the course of Out of Africa when Meryl Streep is allowed to appear attractive) and economically conveys the deepening sense of intimacy between the characters. The sequence also does what occurs too little during the course of the production: connects the characters to each other on an emotional level with a bond that extends to the audience. We're there with them in the moment, not watching them from an introspective distance.

The Academy loves big, ponderous productions like this - films that are visually lavish and have an impeccable pedigree. (It's worth noting that, at least for awards-caliber films, 1985 was not a strong year.) This, more than anything, explains Out of Africa's otherwise inexplicable success during the 1986 Oscar ceremony. The film won seven of the 11 statues for which it was nominated, including much deserved accolades for Barry (score) and Watkin (cinematography). The Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay citations remain among the least celebrated in the Academy Awards' long history. The passage of years have shown Out of Africa to be a nice, pleasant (if padded) motion picture that's long on visual and audio poetry and short on substance. It tells a grand love story in less-than-grand fashion but is nevertheless worth seeing because of all the other things it does right.

Out of Africa (United States, 1985)

Run Time: 2:40
U.S. Release Date: 1985-12-18
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Sexual Situations, Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1