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Out of Africa
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by Jack Sommersby

"Another Undeserving Oscar Winner"
2 stars

Yes, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but the nominated "Prizzi's Honor" would've been a far better choice.

Out of Africa is a tough picture to call because the writing and directing are spotty yet the film is watchable more often than not. There are a few standout scenes yet not nearly enough for something that runs just nineteen minutes shy of the three-hour mark; and the performances are all first-rate, even if the characters aren't exactly bursting with complexity. Recommending it is akin to recommending a restaurant with ho-hum entrees but decent side items -- it's okay to indulge in but nothing to go out of your way for. What's fairly evident is the filmmakers have opted to go the "epic" route so blatantly the overall whole is sketchy rather than realized: we're aware of the intentions but all to aware of the numerous shortcuts taken; it tries to cram too much in without feeling through its various aspects, with a mechanical artistic approach that leaves you wishing for something more small-scale and better observed. Which is a shame because Meryl Streep does some of her best work as Danish baroness Karen von Blixen, who hastily proposes marriage to her cheating boyfriend's brother Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer) before relocating herself from Denmark to early-twentieth-century British-colonial East Africa, where she aims to start a dairy plantation only to discover upon arrival that Bror, who's gone ahead by a few weeks, has opted to go ahead with a coffee crop instead, which the locals view as very ill-advised considering the altitude of the land and the three to four years it'll take to be ready for harvest. It also turns out that Bror is as much a habitual womanizer as his brother -- he doesn't take great pains to hide his infidelities, and spends the minimum amount of time with Karen, opting instead to go off and do big-game hunting in between his female conquests. Gradually entering her life on a regular basis is one Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford), a big-game hunter himself but more of a free spirit who's both well-educated and world-wise -- and, because he's played by Redford, positively dashing. The film details the trials and tribulations over seventeen years of Karen keeping the plantation financially viable, hers and Denys' sometimes-rocky relationship, and Karen growing into a self-reliant, independent woman in the process.

It's based on the life of Karen von Blixen-Finecke, who wrote the memoir Out of Africa and other works under the pen name Isak Dinesen, and we take in the events in Karen's's life that led to her books. The task of collating and condensing all this into a screenplay fell to Kurt Luedtke, whose only previous writing credit was the smart 1981 Absence of Malice, which was directed by Sydney Pollack, who directs here. Absence was reasonably taut and compact, and I'm guessing the decision was made by Pollack, who also produced the film, to have something all-encompassing in scope; but there's a built-in liability in going this route when a film has to cover so many characters and so many happenstances in under three hours in that they're in danger of not being satisfyingly developed. Watching Out of Africa is like being given a tour of a museum with the guide hurrying you along before you can take everything in -- there's too much missing between the scenes (and sometimes within the scenes), and right when something in particular piques some interest we're forwarded months and sometimes years to something else. One would think some potential dynamism in the love triangle, but that's flubbed -- Redford and Brandauer have only one brief scene together, and it's a big nothing (though I did like Denys' response to Bror's telling him he should've asked first: "I did ask. She said yes"). But the Karen/Denys relationship has some interesting fissures: while Denys is around more than Bror ever was, which Karen gets used to, his adventurous self, especially when he acquires his own airplane, is drawn to exploring different parts of the continent; where Bror was inattentive, Denys makes Karen feel she's the only woman in the world for him, but she wants marriage (after Bror requests a divorce because he's leeched onto another wealthy lady) and him home full-time, to which he resists, insisting a marriage certificate and making every minute count when they're together is more than enough. (They even go on safari together, and when a pack of lions rush toward them, Karen, instead of diving flat to the ground as Denys instructs her to, stands her ground and shoots one right between the eyes.)

Out of Africa can be commended for taking us to a different time and place without weighing itself down with overly fussy period detail, and we have the pleasure of getting to know some of the secondary characters (though we want more of Suzanna Hamilton's perceptive neighbor Felicity and Malick Bowens's loyal servant Farah). Yet when it comes to Karen's determination to get the children in a nearby village properly schooled (motivated by, as another character points out, Karen's inability to have children due to contracting syphilis from Bror) and a plot of land to be owned by her workers after her plantation is on the brink of financial ruin, they're underdeveloped, thus pointing to the film's central flaw: what we do get details of just don't add up to much -- Karen's various relationships simply aren't enough to sustain interest; and that we don't get a clear idea of what kind of writer she turned out to be doesn't help, either. (We assume her literary work was important simply because a big-budget film was derived from it.) Pollack's previous film was the intelligent comedy Tootsie, which was his best work; after a few indifferent action pictures that lacked proper shaping, he found his level, and one of the film's chief pleasures was his assured handling of some tricky material. But with Out of Africa he's not really working instinctively -- he's giving us exactly the kind of moments we've grown to expect from an "epic," and several of them are hollow and forced because they're not linked to anything dramatically; it were as if he were following a David Lean playbook with the "required" crowd scenes and eye-catching sunrise/sunset vistas, and he's not particularly good at it. When Denys takes Karen on her first plane ride, Pollack employs too many cuts and too much of John Barry's lovely but overused score to carry it over instead of just letting it flow; and an extended bit where Karen and her hired help go on an ill-advised excursion to the border to bring supplies to Bror and the others fighting an armed excursion that's so poorly put together I'm surprised it survived the final cut. Not surprisingly, Pollack does better with the lighter moments: the villagers' initial skepticism to Karen (she assumes they can all understand English and be welcoming of her invitation to her house for medical help); Karen's amusing befuddlement at the predicament Bror's coffee-growing decision has placed he in (her reaction when told the growing time is priceless).

When Pollack made the western Jeremiah Johnson (with Redford starring), which had its share of outdoor splendor and humor, the handling was streamlined and unfussy -- the film was slight but effective, because it wasn't trying to be several things at once. One might be tempted to call Out of Africa ambitious because it takes on a good deal more, but Johnson was focused, whereas Africa never gets its feet firmly planted in anything in particular. It's placid and amorphous, with nary a fresh observation anywhere in its overly calculated going-for-the-Oscar body; it's strictly a manufactured product with what it thinks are the necessary requisites for it to work but can't see the trees from the forest -- when it's over, it's like one big blur: you don't take anything away from it. Not even the visuals. (Several have praised David Watkins's lighting, but I can't see how any cinematographer afforded the same travelogue locales couldn't have produced just as adequate a result.) And what a mistake to underutilize a talent like Brandauer! In the otherwise-unremarkable James Bond picture Never Say Never Again, Brandauer, as the villain, had understated concentrated intensity and deliciously wicked humor; here, he's given only a couple of scenes to shine, particularly when Bror and Karen have grown to despise each other in so short a time, and we sorely miss his vivacity when he's off-screen. (The naughty way he says "I'd prefer a virgin; I can't stand criticism," makes Karen giggle, and us.) Streep, effortlessly managing Karen's emotional progressions (not to mention, her Danish accent) like the master thespian she is, can't be faulted. And Redford, required to embody rugged romanticism, gives Denys a quiet authority and his line readings some understated inflections. The two stars match up well together, and if they can't make their characters' relationship anything memorable, it's more the fault of the schematic writing than anything else -- Luedtke keeps falling back on a well-worn story template where every character turn happens pretty much right on schedule, and sometimes we can tell what's going to come out of a character's mouth before it's said. Out of Africa could've used some alacrity, less presumptuousness; it's so preened and "proper" of what it thinks we want in an large-scale production that it's neither here nor there. It's ultimately an affectless experience, like flipping through the pages of National Geographic.

Lots of scenery, little worth remembering.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=24904&reviewer=327
originally posted: 03/02/13 12:38:15
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User Comments

9/11/13 dr.lao Has some great shopts of Africa, but loses a lot when the actors appear on screen 2 stars
8/18/13 melis You have it mixed up - Isak Dinsesn was her PEN name. I thought it was a marvelous film. 5 stars
3/05/13 Charles Tatum Love the grandeur of it, but Redford doesn't even try. 4 stars
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  18-Dec-1985 (PG-13)



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