I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. The next on my list was the 1985 winner, Out of Africa, directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.
Out of Africa is a romantic epic based on the memoirs of Karen Blixen, who owned a farm in Africa in the early part of the 20th Century. The film makes superb use of cinematography to show the grandeur of the landscape and the unique character of the culture. While grand, it is also personal and moving.
The other Best Picture nominees that year were The Color Purple, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Prizzi's Honor and Witness. In addition to Best Picture, Out of Africa won Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Music, Original Score, Best Sound, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Blixen's books, as well as Judith Thurman's Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller and Errol Trzebinski's Silence Will Speak).
The movie is told in flashback form, as Karen Blix (Streep), now an old woman, reflects back on her time in Africa. A wealthy Danish woman, she enters a marriage of convenience and purchases a plantation in Africa, where she moves with her husband. There, they begin the painstaking process of growing coffee, banking on future rewards.
Coping with such a big geographical and cultural change is difficult for Karen, especially since her husband, Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer, whom James Bond fans will recognize as Maximilian Largo from Never Say Never Again), is frequently absent. Fortunately, she meets dashing aviator/hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Redford), who helps her to adjust. The two become close, just as her marriage runs into troubles.
While this movie is a biographical picture, it is in many ways a better epic romance than many fictional romances that have made it onto the big screen. The film is played with a lyrical subtlety that avoids the melodrama that pervades most romances. When dire circumstances befall Karen, she does not react with histrionics. In typical Meryl Streep fashion, you see Karen processing the news internally, then determining what action to take. This has always been one of Streep's strengths. As the central character of this film, Streep is compelling. She patterned the accent on listening to actual recordings of Karen Blix (whose pen name was Isak Dinesen) reading her work.
Just as compelling are the beautiful images of Africa, captured by cinematographer David Watkin. The film is set in Kenya, and Denys tells Karen that, as outsiders, they can't truly own the land. Instead, he insists, it will eventually go back into the wild. He is a great advocate of the preservation of both nature and the indigenous culture. Interestingly enough, while the film was shot on location in the actual Ngong Hills outside Nairobi in Kenya (where the movie is set), local laws prohibited the use of wild animals in film, so trained lions were imported from California. Actual descendants of the Kikuyu tribe who were described in the book appeared in the film.
Redford does a great job as the adventurous yet sensitive Denys. For his part, Brandauer plays Bror as vacillating between selfish and somewhat callous to tender.
While this film keeps a leisurely pace, clocking in at 160 minutes (2 hours and 40 minutes), the pacing is justified. The film never feels like it's dragging. This is, in part, because Streep is such a joy to watch, but it is also because the editing and cinematography, combined with the musical score, work so well. This movie feels like a symphony, where parts of the movie are loud and bombastic, while other parts are as tender and lilting as a flute solo.
Out of Africa feels nostalgic, as someone might view a world that had been precious at a key stage of life. This suits the fact that the film is told through the memories of an elderly woman.
I had never seen this film, having assumed it would be overly sentimental and perhaps even boring. I feared it would be like so many of the epics that get Oscar noms: a bigger picture than it needed to be. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. Out of Africa is grand in the way that Lawrence of Arabia is grand: by showing us a widescreen, vivid backdrop against which historic figures come to life.
Rating: ***** (4 out of 5 stars)
Romances don't have to be overwrought.