Monday, 1 April 2013

Out of Africa: A Glimpse of the Past

I was fifteen years old with a passing taste for romance when Sidney Pollack’s epic Out of Africa, that won seven Oscars, was released in 1985. The love story is loosely based on the autobiographical work of Danish author Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke (short: Karen Blixen) who originally used the pen name Isak Denisen. The main source of the film, the memoir Out of Africa, first appeared in 1937, a few years after the writer’s return from Kenya to Denmark. 

With the exception of episodes set in Denmark, the 161 minutes of Out of Africa were filmed on original locations in the Ngong Hills outside Nairobi, Kenya, and comprise many awesome vistas of African landscape and wild life that not only moved the continent into focus but that also won David Watkin the Oscar for Best Cinematography. Judged by modern standards the pace of the film feels fairly slow, but this effect is intended and follows the spirit of Karen Blixen’s book. 

The love story is told by Karen Blixen (played by Meryl Streep) over a period of several years, her off-narration serving as link between the different episodes. Out of Africa starts in Denmark in 1913. Wealthy Karen Blixen is in her late twenties and fears to be doomed to remain without a husband, so she asks her financially broken friend Baron Bror Blixen (played by the Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer) to marry her. The arrangement includes that the couple moves to British East Africa (now Kenya) after the wedding to build up a dairy farm, but her husband buys a run-down coffee plantation instead. Karen Blixen tries her best to make her philandering and drinking husband love her, but her plan doesn’t work out. Most of the time Bror leaves her alone on the isolated farm that the Baroness learns to run on her own. One of few regular white visitors to the farm is the hunter and pilot Deny Finch Hatton (played by Robert Redford), an independent man who shares her appreciation for the country and its people. They become friends. When Karen Blixen contracts syphilis from her husband, she returns to Denmark for treatment where she stays until the end of the Great War in 1918. Upon her return to Africa Bror is very much the same as he used to be before Karen left. In the end she has enough of her unfaithful husband and turns him out. Karen Blixen’s friendship with Deny deepens and eventually turns into love, but he cherishes his freedom too much to give it up even for her who is now divorced. Otherwise everything runs smoothly on the farm. Karen Blixen opens a school for the tribal children and the coffee harvest is good, but then a fire destroys everything. The Baroness is forced to sell the plantation and to return to Denmark. Deny bids her good-bye before a flight to Mombasa and promises to return in a couple of days, but he dies in a plane crash. 

Admittedly, the plot of Out of Africa isn’t very deep and the love story is a lot less emotional than we are used to from other Hollywood productions. For me this is okay, though, because even in my teens I was rather repelled by the constant display of exaggerated emotions bordering on hysteria or maniac-depression. The performance of Meryl Streep in this film is excellent and Robert Redford… I know only the dubbed German version, but he has been criticized for playing the Englishman Deny Finch Hatton with too much of an American accent. 

However, it’s the stunning pictures of Africa that really make worthwhile watching Out of Africa. Almost thirty years have passed since David Watkin captured them – I wonder how much of the beautiful idyll is still left despite poverty, tourism and global warming. 

And for those who prefer books to films:

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