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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

The Flame Trees of Thika (review)

Call it Little House on the Serengeti. Delightful and deeply affecting, in that way that genuine, heartfelt stories about growing up can often be, this is a treat for fans of British TV — a beloved 1981 production is at last on DVD — and childhood memoirs. Based on the book by Elspeth Huxley, this seven-episode miniseries follows the true story of her Edwardian Scottish family’s exploits in colonialism and farming in East Africa just prior to World War I, when her father, Robin (David Robb), who has more ambition than sense, decides to start a coffee plantation in Kenya. Elspeth (Holly Aird: Possession), 11 years old and full of spunk, and her mother, Tilly (Hayley Mills) arrive to discover that Robin’s dreams need some help to get off the ground. Soon, though, they’re making friends with the natives, making a society with the other European ex-pats, and making a home for themselves on the wild plains of Africa. The quarter-century-old image suffers from a few scratches and other flaws, but it’s not nearly enough to detract from the simple joy of the story, in which Elspeth’s free spirit takes flight in a way that, it’s clear, will affect her for the rest of her life. Shot on location in Kenya, this is a breathtaking work of enchantment, mystery, and the grand adventure of becoming your own person.

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MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

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