Out of Africa (review)

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The African Queen

Like Lawrence of Arabia, Out of Africa is a story of time and place. Just as T.E. Lawrence’s tale could only have happened in the Middle Eastern deserts of the Great War, Isak Dinesen’s would not exist without the gorgeous vistas of East Africa of almost exactly the same time.

Director Sydney Pollack has crafted a film, based on the life and writings of Baroness Karen Blixen (the pseudonymous Dinesen), that is both a love letter to a lost Africa and a paean to one woman’s luxurious indulgence of her quest for independence and adventure. Karen (Meryl Streep) arrives in Kenya in 1913 to marry Baron Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer). Though they had been good friends back home in Denmark, it is a marriage of convenience for both: he has the title, and she has the money they need to start a coffee plantation. East Africa is a frontier world to the motley Europeans settling there — all are eager for the excitement of the exotic, alien country and yet all paradoxically are lonely for home. (An Englishman Karen meets on her arrival wonders if she traveled through London, and might she have a newspaper; Karen herself brings all her treasures with her: china, a cuckoo clock, books.)

But it’s also a world far enough removed from proper society that a woman can break free of the constraints placed upon her by dint of her gender, to such an extent that even today Karen seems modern. When the Great War breaks out and the Germans begin rattling their sabers nearby, Bror rides off with a provisional army to hold them at bay, leaving Karen to run the plantation — and run it well — on her own. When he sends a request for supplies, she sets off on a harrowing journey to bring them to the men herself, saying in the end that “it was fun.” She fights a lion with a bullwhip and shoots another dead with one shot. She has a refreshingly grownup, realistic attitude about men: Her husband may be a philanderer, and she may not be in love with him, but she certainly likes to have sex with him. (Her young friend Felicity echoes Karen’s sensibility when she says, “I want [men] to like me but I also want to be let alone.”) And Karen has no qualms about kicking Bror out when he oversteps even Karen’s loose bounds, or having an affair with the free-spirited big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford).

During and after the war, though, the outside world begins its inevitable encroachment. Telephone wires and automobiles make their first appearances, and tourists begin to flood in to such an extent that Denys finds himself in a hurry to see untamed Africa — and to show it to Karen — before it disappears.

“I tried to remember the colors of Africa”: that’s how Karen survived an extended trip home to Denmark during the war. Out of Africa captures, beautifully and bittersweetly, the last exciting time in the last wild place on Earth, making me feel as if I really missed out on something wonderful by being born too late.

Oscars Best Picture 1985
unforgettable movie moment:
Denys takes Karen on a breathtaking plane ride above the wide-open spaces of East Africa, over plunging waterfalls, migrating herds, flocks of flamingoes alighting from the surface of a lake.

previous Best Picture:
1984: Amadeus
next Best Picture:
1986: Platoon

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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