OUT OF AFRICA (1985)

out of africaFirst off, let me say there is no scene in this movie where Robert Redford teaches Meryl Streep how to drive, nor are there any scenes with people stuck in traffic. In fact, I don’t recall anyone uttering the titular line in the entire movie, although if Meryl Streep said it, I may have missed it through her impenetrable accent.

Chronologically speaking, this picks up shortly after our last movie, in 1913.  It  is the adaptation of Karen Blixen’s memoirs, with Meryl Streep portraying the author. From a wealthy Danish family, she marries a Baron (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and they move to colonial Kenya to establish a coffee plantation. After the marriage proves an unhappy pairing, Karen finds her real love is for charming rover Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford). As she runs her plantation over the years, she interacts with the British colonial society as well as the native Kikuyu population. She lives through ordeals like the hardship of wartime and the unfortunate effects of her husband’s infidelity, but also experiences adventures with Denys and sees the beauty of the land.

My mother told me this was one of her favorite movies, so I was definitely interested to see it. I felt the same way when she told me Jane Eyre was her favorite novel – compelled to read it out of a deep and abiding love for my mom. Both are great works and worthy of exploration, but both also moved at quite a languid pace for my liking. In fact, it took me over eight years to complete Jane Eyre – even though I thought it a worthwhile story. Thankfully, it didn’t take me as long to watch Out of Africa.

Languid indeed. When we had finished this film, Mouse asked me how many years I thought the story had spanned. It was hard for me to gauge. I deeply admired Streep’s character – she has a good moral compass and seems to want to do the right thing, but was hampered greatly by the roles women could play in society at the time. Her pride motivates her to act in a number of ways that don’t serve her – in large part, to enter a marriage of convenience without love in which she experiences betrayal and humiliation more than once. It is more important to her to be married as a person of society than to be happy. Despite its origins as a marriage in name only, she and her husband do develop a physical relationship – perhaps due to proximity so far away from their native Denmark in Africa. Her philandering husband eventually gives her syphilis, and she is forced to go back to Europe for treatment. Thankfully, she is okay, but she because of this she learns she will never be able to have children. The realization seems to hit her quite acutely and quite painfully, and she throws herself squarely into her work on the farm to try to get a strong coffee crop going and for sale – something she is learning about as she goes.

There is plenty to like in this movie. The actors give fine performances. And the photography is truly something to look at; the filmmakers definitely worked to convey the natural beauty of the landscape. In a larger sense, they recreated colonial-era Kenya convincingly, with the costumes, locations and sets. Nothing in the film looks fake or shot on a stage, with one exception. But on a whole, watching it did nothing to dispel my idea that the Best Picture award through the 1980s tended to go to movies with Great Actors playing Serious Roles in Lavish Productions that are long and beautiful, if not necessarily exciting on a visceral level. Prestigious Films, set apart from crowd pleasing blockbusters. Adult films, in the non-sexy sense off the term. The critical view of Out of Africa seems to reflect this, with praise for the actors and so forth, but also using words like “glacial” to describe the pacing. In fact, Out of Africa is one of only five Best Pictures to hold a score under 60 on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. (What are the others? Hint: this is the third we’ve watched from that list.) This isn’t to say I thought of it as a bad movie. Rather, when I think “Best Picture” while watching, my next thought is “So what else was going on that year?”

This movie can be seen as a sort of companion piece to our earlier Gandhi, in that both are stories of life in the British Empire of the early 20th century. But while Gandhi is the story of the colonized, Out of Africa is the story of colonizers. Now, most modern people find the idea of colonialism distasteful at best, but  of course this is a story about people living in another time, with a much different worldview. Still it would have been interesting to hear what discussions the filmmakers may have had about portraying people whose lifestyle is based on something now seen as discredited and archaic.

I appreciate that Mouse brings up the point about colonization. In one moment of the film, Denys points out to Karen that the Kikuyu people who work on the farm aren’t really hers. It’s one of the very few moments in the entire film where we have some sort of critical analysis of the presence of white Europeans in Africa at all. I mentioned that Karen has a good moral compass; she does, at least as depicted in this film, but that does not absolve her from the role she has as a white colonizer. She differs from some of the worse offenders because she is benevolent; she wants to teach the Kikuyu to read, for example, which is an idea greeted with disdain by other white Europeans living in Africa. It even leads to a scene at a party in which Denys steps in to diffuse the situation when another man questions Karen about the schooling she has set up for the African children who work her land.

The love story between Karen and Denys is beautiful and touching. You can see that they admire one another for their strength, perseverance and character. Denys is handsome and winning, well cast as a dashing man to win over the heart of a woman who has been failed by love so profoundly. Karen is an interesting character herself, defying the strict gender roles of the time, running the farm with skill and authority, going with the men to make herself available for battle when the need arises, and – in arguably the best scene of the film – eventually being asked by the all-male social club to join them for a drink at the very end of the movie when she is on the brink of returning to Europe. She has proven herself to them, and they let her know with an invitation for a whiskey to a solemn crowd of admirers. It is easy to see why a man like Denys would fall for her, even though he can’t be tied down. And, as he says – she ruins being alone for him. That’s the kind of love story I know many – including my mother – savor.

Oh, and by the way – the one really poorly shot scene Mouse is referring to is the one in which Denys is flying a biplane and Karen has joined him for a ride. For some reason, because of how this was shot, it looks very hokey and unbelievable. It made both our eyes widen because it stands in such stark contrast to an otherwise stunningly shot film.

That scene looks like the part in Wayne’s World where they get a blue screen. I got a gun, lets go to a Broadway show! Yeah, I only bring it up because the rest of the movie is so gorgeous. And then the scene toward the end where she is invited into the club for a drink. That was the one scene where I actually felt moved emotionally.

To answer my own question “What else was going on that year?”, I keep finding myself thinking of Back to the Future.  Obviously it lacks the gravitas expected of a Best Picture, but can someone tell me in exactly what ways it is inferior to Out of Africa? (Rotten Tomatoes score: 96)

I am actively avoiding disclosing some parts of the movie, because I don’t want to spoil it. It was a worthwhile watch, a story of love and passion set against a majestic backdrop. It wasn’t my favorite film of all time, but I enjoyed seeing two great American actors – Streep and Redford – bring this story to life. I’d recommend it as a good film to watch with your mother – I can see, truly, why mine loves it.

Also nominated in 1985:
The Color Purple
Kiss of the Spider Woman
Prizzi’s Honor
Witness

Next film: A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966)

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