Monday, August 27, 2012

OUT OF AFRICA (1985)


OUT OF AFRICA (DIR: SYDNEY POLLACK) (SCR: KURT LUEDTKE, BASED ON THE MEMOIR BY ISAK DINESEN)

With OUT OF AFRICA, the Academy made a safe, predictable choice for best picture of 1985; it's a great looking, classically made dramatic romance with two big stars and a period setting.  Unfortunately, it's also far too long and often uninvolving,  despite its lovely locations.  It would appear that the Academy felt that it was time to reward well admired director Sydney Pollack for his years of work (he also won an Oscar for best director) than for the film itself.  Personally, I prefer his earlier films like 1982's TOOTSIE and 1969's THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?, to this slow moving movie.
Long before it was a movie, it was a memoir by Karen Blixen (under the pen name Isak Dinesen), about her adventures as a plantation owner in Kenya.  There was interest in making a film of the story for years, (most intriguing, Orson Welles wanted to make it with Greta Garbo in the lead) but it was Frank Price, the head of Universal Pictures, who finally got the funding together and hired Pollack to direct.  Pollack assigned the script to former reporter Kurt Luedtke, who had worked with the director before on 1981's ABSENCE OF MALICE.  Initially, Pollack wanted Audrey Hepburn for the lead role of Karen, but she turned it down, so it went to Meryl Streep instead.  Streep, in her usual manner, researched the role and perfected her accent by listening to actual recordings of Blixen.  Robert Redford was hired as her love interest, Denys Finch Hatten; Redford reportedly attempted an English accent, but Pollack thought audiences would find it distracting and had him stop, even going so far as to rerecord  some of his dialogue.  The film was shot almost entirely on location in Africa, and production designer Stephen Grimes spent years recreating not only the  plantation but the surrounding town as well, even using actual furniture owned by Blixen for some scenes.  Made at a budget of around thirty million dollars, and buoyed by its romance and star power,  the movie would go on to make about eighty seven million in the US.

Robert Redford shampoos Meryl Streep

Beginning in 1913, it tells the story of Karen Blixen, a Danish woman who marries a poor but titled Baron Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer), more out of convenience than love, and moves with him to Africa to run a plantation.  Eventually, she does start to have feelings for the Baron, but he is a womanizer, and eventually she contracts syphilis from him, requiring a long period of recovery at home.  When she returns to Africa, she finds her husband still unfaithful, and she herself begins an affair with the free spirited big game hunter Denys Hatten, whom she had befriended earlier.

It's obvious that Pollack and Luedkte's script view this story as a romantic one first, while the rest just serves as an excuse to get our two big stars together in some lovely scenery, and so no time is wasted: although they may not get together romantically until later, the two lovers  first meet sometime within the first ten minutes (amusingly, Redford is first seen hauling a big, somewhat phallic ivory tusk), and the audience just knows that it is only a matter of time before they will come together.   Personally,  I don't think this was the right way to go; the emphasis on romance leaves other aspects of the story unfulfilled.  Karen has to run the plantation by herself when her no good husband leaves, but we only hear a little about her hardships.  So little that even the accidental burning down of the plantation late in the film fails to make much of an emotional mark on the audience.  The same goes for her relations with her African workers, which are not as moving as Pollack seems to think they are, and could have been fleshed out much more.  And Brandauer has such a thankless role as Karen's husband that he only shows up every once in a while to remind the audience what a loser he is.   I think a film that  shows this woman bravely working  on the plantation alone that had  some romance on the side would have made for a stronger film.  As it is, it's mostly just a pretty romance.

To be fair, the love story here is often effective; Streep and Redford make for an interesting couple: she with her chameleon like ability to disappear into a role, complete with foreign accent and dyed hair, and he giving a classic, relaxed star turn, much like the same ones he had been giving for years.  Somehow it works when it shouldn't;  Redford has such immediate charm, and Streep such intelligence that their attraction to each other seems natural, and it makes sense that the more Karen gets used to life in Africa, the more she is drawn to a man who seems built for the land.  I like the sensual shampoo he gives her on the banks of a wild river, or the shy, boyish way that he asks if he can leave his things at her place, implicating that he wants to keep seeing her.  And I can almost forgive the film's weaknesses for the beautiful scene in which he takes her flying over the mountains of Africa, surrounded by flocks of flamingoes.  If their relationship sometimes bogs down into typical emotional language (he leaves her to go on safari because it's something he has to do,  telling her "I don't want to live someone else's idea of how to live") the love story still is the heart of the film, and works better than anything else around it.

The lovely flying scene


It should also be noted  that the filmmakers and Streep want Karen to be seen as a proto feminist: along with running the plantation, she also explodes with righteous anger when she finds her husband has changed their plantation from a cattle farm to a coffee farm without telling her, and when she realizes that her husband will not cease his philandering, she guiltlessly takes a lover of her own.  And, in the film's only truly exciting moment, she calmly shoots down a charging lioness with a single rifle shot!  (I like this scene not only for the excitement, but also for Redford's look of amazement and awe afterwards, a nice example of his growing respect and attraction for her).  While I'm not sure how historically accurate this  characterization is, it works for the story and makes the character more interesting. And that leads to one nice detail: at the end of the film, she is invited to have a drink in the men's only Muthaiga Country Club.  This really happened, and Karen Blixen remains the only woman ever to be served a drink at that club to this day!

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

It's probably pretty clear that I have a mixed reaction to this film, despite its lovely visuals; personally, I think any of the other films nominated for best picture that year (THE COLOR PURPLE, WITNESS, PRIZZI'S HONOR, KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN) would have been a better choice.  I also prefer  some films that weren't nominated, such as Terry Gilliam's crazed BRAZIL, and Woody Allen's delightful fantasy, THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO.  Yes, OUT OF AFRICA is only a pleasant movie at best, and it remains one of the Academy's weaker choices.