Sydney Pollack’s 1985 epic is a period piece set in Kenya from the 1910s. It’s loosely based on Karen Blixen’s memoirs, which recount her years running a coffee plantation and her relationships with her philandering husband and a hunter. The film was a huge success for stars Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, making back almost ten times its budget at the box office.
Now that the western colonial past has become a difficult subject for many, there are aspects of Out of Africa that some may consider uncomfortable. However, viewed as historical drama, it tells a compelling human story. It is the classic tale of a fish out of water, who suddenly finds the capacity to grow in her new environment.
The Dutch Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) travels to Kenya to marry her cousin Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and establish a farm. At first, she is awkward, both in the company of the formal and aristocratic British officers, as well as in relating to the Africans. From her initial train journey through vast open spaces to dealing with the black servants and those native to the land where her farm has been built, she feels reticent and alone. Gradually, though, she comes to love the land and the coffee plantation as she becomes a strong, independent and fearless woman, even capable of keeping lions at bay over long and dangerous journeys.
There is a love story at the heart of Out of Africa. As well as her growing love for Kenya and its people, Blixen also grows close to the white hunter Denys (Robert Redford) just as her own marriage is falling apart.
There are several highly impressive elements to Out of Africa that make it a compelling and memorable film. The first is the cinematography (David Watkin was director of photography). Denys is a keen pilot, and there are many aerial shots of stunning topography, flocks of flamingoes and a whole menagerie of wildlife. The Kenyan Tourist Board could easily have endorsed it. There’s also a sumptuous orchestral score full of trademark sweeping strings by John Barry, best-remembered for his many James Bond soundtracks. Then there’s director Sydney Pollack’s steady hand in ensuring that, although epic in approach, there are plenty of two-hander scenes that ensure the drama is intimate. He brings great performances out of his cast.
Firstly, there are the leads. Meryl Streep is always impressive, and she shines here, maintaining a Dutch accent with a fair degree of conviction as well as immaculately signposting the development of her character. She has excellent chemistry with Robert Redford, who pulls off his trick of seeming effortlessly charming and charismatic, however little he is doing on screen. The supporting cast is excellent, too. Malick Bowens is terrific as Karen’s servant, Farah. The transition from animosity to deep friendship is movingly played.
Every period piece about the British empire demands a roll call of great British actors – and Out of Africa does not disappoint. The ever-dependable Michael Kitchen gains our sympathy as the shy but decent Berkeley. There are also small roles for the fabulous eccentrics Graham Crowden (Waiting for God), Leslie Phillips (Carry On) and Michael Gough (Batman). They are all actors who light up the screen whenever they appear.
At a duration of two hours and forty minutes, Out of Africa requires a free evening to digest in one sitting, and inevitably feels a little ponderous in parts. Viewers of a sensitive disposition may find some scenes depicting animals distressing. And, of course, the world and people’s attitudes have changed a lot in the century since the story was set. Despite a few misgivings though, Out of Africa holds up as a sumptuous and beautifully-performed film. Once seen, never forgotten. It’s the human connections that sell it. The idea of land and place and belonging are personalised in the depictions of just a few fragile human lives. That quality makes it captivating and timeless. The story of the indomitable spirit of a young woman determined to rise up above the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune retains its relevance for our own time – and ought to instil in us admiration for our ancestors. Those of us from subsequent generations would have been crushed by everything Blixen endures!
You can find out more about the real-life Karen Blixen in the extra feature A Song of Africa – a 73-minute documentary by Charles Kiselyak. In includes readings of her poetry, her talent for which is depicted in the film. It includes contributions by, amongst others, Meryl Streep, director Sydney Pollack and composer John Barry. You can also enjoy deleted scenes, a theatrical trailer and an audio commentary with Sydney Pollack.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Michael Kitchen, Malick Bowens, Joseph Thiaka, Stephen Kinyanjui, Rachel Kempson, Graham Crowden, Leslie Phillips Director: Sydney Pollack Writers: Karen Blixen, Judith Thurman Certificate: 12 Duration: 160 mins Released by: Fabulous Films Release date: 28th September 2020 Buy Out of Africa