Sunday 12 August 2018

1,001 Films: "Out of Africa" (1985)

Out of Africa, Sydney Pollack's stab at a long, widescreen, Oscar-snaffling David Lean movie, adapts Isak Dinesen (a.k.a Karen Blixen)'s autobiographical account of a Danish writer (Meryl Streep) who, unmarried and tired of the harsh Scandinavian winters, ended up on a farm in Kenya during the First World War, married to an aristocrat (Klaus-Maria Brandauer) yet rather taken by an English hunter (Robert Redford). Oddly, for a film released in 1985, their affair is conducted within the exact same moral strictures Lean was bristling up against in his Forties films, lessening any suggestion of adultery by making the Baron a jovial, philandering husband of convenience who keeps reminding his other half not to fall for him, and who's barely present in the marital home, save - at one point - as a nasty case of the clap. There's never really any question of who's going to gain our heroine's heart: Redford's so breezy he gets to keep his own accent, and the audience is invited to forgive him for it. 

With any other potential sources of tension or drama deferred to an unspecified point on the horizon - the farm's coffee crops take four years to grow, the war never reaches Kenya in any palpable form, and this Blixen has no deadlines to meet - and the substantial theme of ownership only raised with 45 minutes to go, it's left to Pollack to chuck extraordinary things at his leads (local wildlife, Masai warriors, STDs) in a bid to persuade us there might be anything at stake. (It remains the only film in history in which Meryl Streep is snarled at by a lioness and has to battle syphilis.) The equation - pretty music (John Barry) over pretty pictures of reasonably pretty people - yields another acceptable wallow, and certainly there's a lot less to object to here than there would be in the equally long, not incomparable Cold Mountain two decades later, though perhaps because there's much less to it full-stop, save a polite assertion that if you love something, you should set it free. (And Sting got there first.) I watched it on a Sunday afternoon, while drifting in and out of sleep, which felt about right.

Out of Africa is available on DVD through Universal Pictures.

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