Tuesday, February 4

Out of Africa: Favorite Movie #3

1985 Autobiographical Drama
From Universal Studios
Directed by Sydney Pollack

Meryl Streep
Robert Redford
Klaus Maria Brandauer
Michael Kitchen
Malick Bowens
Joseph Thiaka
Michael Gough
Suzanna Hamilton
Rachel Kempson

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of Ngong Hills. 

So said Dane Karen Blixen when she moved to Africa in 1913.  The line opens the Oscar-winning best picture of 1985 which provides me with my third favorite film of alltime.  Like most of the films in my top echelon, I cannot find a single thing wrong with it.  Some may find it too slow-paced, especially at its 2-hour and 41-minute length, but not me.  Pollack and company could have added another leisurely hour and I'd happily have stayed in my seat.

A former editor with the Detroit Free Press, Kurt Luedtke, wrote a glorious screenplay based on three works: Out of Africa and Other Works by Isak Dinesen (one of Blixen's pen names), Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller by Judith Thurman, and Silence Will Speak by Errol Trzebinski. 

Karen entered into a loveless marriage with her second cousin, Bror Blixen, after being involved in a relationship with his brother.  Karen had money which Bror needed and she coveted a title.  Marrying him she became a baroness.  Together they decided to move to Kenya and raise cattle. 

I was entirely enchanted with her arrival on the Dark Continent.  There is a sensational segment of a train whizzing across the plains and a shot of Streep at the back of a train car with a myriad of facial expressions mirroring her discoveries and expectations of her new life.

Then comes her arrival in Nairobi (a set built for the film) and her meeting with the stately Farah, who will be her majordomo, and being shunned in a gentlemen-only bar in a hotel.  Her first sighting of her farm is as stunning for us as it must have been for her.  There was also the meeting of her staff, members of the Kikuyu tribe, whom she grew to love and care for.  The unpacking of her possessions and setting up house was fun to observe, especially when some Kikuyu children became immobilized while watching her cuckoo clock.

After the Blixens arrived Bror decided they would instead start a coffee plantation and while he promised to help with it, he never did.  At the time Karen felt she was starting to have feelings for him, he took up big-game hunting and hunting other women.  He was rarely home and in fact, probably didn't consider her farm his home.

The screenplay, in addition to shedding light on Blixen's relationship with her husband, also allows a glimpse into what might have been her most successful male relationship, albeit a chaste one, with Farah, her trusted servant, her butler and interpreter whose patrician looks revealed a loyal and even loving man who stood nearby to guard her.

Her main relationship, and the heart of the film, is her challenging pairing with big-game hunter Denys Finch-Hatton.  He had been in Africa a few years before her.  The son of a wealthy English earl, his love of his adopted country and continent was fierce.  While he shared this love with Blixen, he wanted the land to remain as it was while she wanted to bring a European culture to it and was enamored of the change that was possible.  It would be just the first of their many problems.

As their relationship turned from friendship into love, Karen, who could be a bit of a shrew when she didn't get her way, wanted more from Denys, namely permanence, stability, and yes, the "M" word, marriage.  Here the great hunter roared louder than the lions, for freedom and independence were paramount to him.  Denys would get cranky, if not sarcastic, when she pushed him.  The only thing he wanted permanent was the freedom to move about.

The real Karen Blixen

And move about he did.  Their relationship, which endured for over 10 years, was marked with long separations while he went on safaris and as she says, Safaris are not all you're doing when you are away, are they?  He doesn't respond but it's obvious to one and all.

Later in their romance Finch-Hatton also had a relationship with
aviatrix Beryl Markham, which is not detailed in the film.  Also not given any light is the allegation that Denys was bisexual, which likely partly explains his absences.  It's interesting that this detail was left out of the film, which would have without question changed how we looked at the entire piece, but it's been said that Redford wanted it eliminated from the story.

What is an African film without lions?  The thing about this one is that there are three separate scenes involving the ferocious beasts.  The longest and most thrilling is one where lions invade a campsite when all the humans are sleeping.  As the marauders attack the livestock, Blixen awakens and grabs a whip to scare off one of the devouring lions.  It was a gripping scene made all the more so when one learns there was a problem with filming it.  Or so Streep says.

She says the lion, brought over from America, was supposed to be tethered as she cracks the whip at it.  The beast was suppose to respond appropriately but didn't, preferring docility.  The actress claims that someone, without her knowledge, untethered it.  What we then see in the scene is a furious animal charging at Streep.  She was less than happy.  Pollack, it should be noted, says it's all untrue, that he would never put his leading, high-paid actress in such jeopardy.

A scene that totally captured my imagination is when Karen and Denys and his friend Berkely Cole are sitting around the table after dinner and Denys asks her to tell a story.  It's something that came easily to her.  He will give her an opening line and she will take it away from there.  There was a wandering Chinese named Cheng Wah, living in Limehouse, and a girl named Shirley.  A group of us used to do this same thing at gatherings in faraway Southern California. 

I laughed so at a scene where Blixen and her entourage, traveling across the plains in search of Bror, arrive at his large camp, looking dirty, bedraggled and all the worse for wear and he greets her with you've changed your hair, which, of course, looked a fright.

There were many loving scenes depicting the Karen-Denys romance.  Included are many beautiful shots as they walk around her property and one on the veranda where she arrives and finds him asleep in a chair.  Without waking him, she moves a chair next to him, holding his hand and watching him sleep.  Now, that's love to me... so tender and moving.  Equally impressive is a scene in the bush by a river where he washes her hair.  Damn, who wouldn't want that?

Learning to fly only the day before, he takes her up in his two-seater.  We are treated to one of the dazzling musical pieces by John Barry that so charges my emotions as they fly over the plains and vast herds of animals, sharing the sky with water fowl, skirting waterfalls, climbing cliffs.  It was a spiritual feeling.  It reminded me of the opening scene in The Sound of Music, except that this one was better and included shots of the yellow plane.  At the height of the ecstasy, Streep/Blixen reaches back to touch Redford/Finch-Hatton's hand.  Be still my heart... ever the sucker for love.

I was taken by a scene, the writing, when Bror arrives at the farm, having just realized that Denys, who is on the veranda, has started an affair with his wife.  Bror approaches him... you might have asked, Denys, who responds... I did.  She said yes.

More exquisite writing comes toward the end as it becomes apparent Karen and Denys are not going to overcome their difference.  Without a doubt she is possessive and lonely.  And he is selfish, especially with his time.  Neither of them is willing to bend.  Marriage would mean I would have someone of my own, and he icily replies no it wouldn't.  He tells her that she confuses need with want.  He wants to go off again on a trip and take a mutual woman friend with him.  After hassling about it, she finally says I won't allow it and he opines, you have no idea the effect that language has on me.

He decides to move the few things he's kept at her house.  At the same time, and this is now 1931, there is a fire that destroys her coffee plantation and she has run out of money.  It is apparent she will have to leave her beloved Africa unless, of course, Denys could offer her something shared and permanent.  But he will not.  One day Bror enters her home and advises her that Denys has been killed in his beloved plane.

The real Denys Finch-Hatton

I am always misty-eyed when she delivers a eulogy at his burial site in the hills with its stunning view of the plains below:  Now take back the soul of Denys George Finch-Hatton whom you have shared with us.  He brought us joy.  We loved him well.  He was not ours.  He was not mine

Karen Blixen would leave Africa and never return.  She would go back to Denmark and begin her remarkable writing career.

The technical credits are among the best ever put to film.  David Watkin's photography of this country is the stuff of legend.  Whether in the air or on the ground, Kenya has never appeared more appealing.  Blixen is supposed to fall head-over-heels in love with it and from what I saw, no wonder she did.

I couldn't say enough about John Barry's score, surely one of the best ever composed for a motion picture.  I play it often in my convertible, driving down country roads.  I even reach my hand back to my imaginary Denys in the back seat.  Ok, I get a little carried away.  I have had the cd playing all through this writing.  It makes the adjectives flow.

Meryl Streep and Robert Redford... c'mon, what's to say?  Not that the lady is ever exactly ho-hum but I think her portrayal of Karen Blixen is one of her best.  Of course she masters the accent but she masters all the rest of it as well.  Her ability to be forceful in such an understated way appears as sheer magic to me.  Her open face captures the many nuances that this plucky, endearing, loving, brave, lonely character can possibly muster.  And speaking of faces, how 'bout that Redford?  My favorite-ever single scene of him is likely sleeping at the bar in his Navy whites in The Way We Were, but I gotta tell you, there are two or three closeups here that make me woozy.  And since he could easily have become a movie star while just gliding by on those looks, it's lovely that he took the time to become a very good actor.

All supporting roles were filled with exactly the right choices, everyone completely convinced me.  But I have a special appreciation for Malick Bowens for the joy he provided me as Farah.  When he was onscreen, I even turned away from the stellar Meryl.

Sidney Pollack, whose body of work is among the best, the most exciting of any director of his time, hit the bullseye on Out of Africa.  This was a mammoth project in a foreign country with many locations, working with animals, with a large supporting, non-English-speaking cast.  On the downside, his long association with Redford frayed a bit during this film.  

The film would win 28 major awards throughout the world and capture seven Oscars... best cinematography, screenplay adaptation, original score, art direction, sound and of course best director and best picture. 

We know I love biographies and I am besotted with Africa.  I have many DVDs of films made there, but none shines as brightly as this one.  I followed the work of the director and also its two stars.  It was a given I would not only see this film but like it.  I have always regarded Out of Africa as a stunning achievement.

If interested, here's a look at some of Blixen's quotes:

Review of The Monuments Men


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