Out of Africa – what they got right in the movie
In July, I visited a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. This is no ordinary farm. It was made famous by white colonist Karen Blixen, the Danish aristocrat and author who conjured her adventures in a lyrical book, Out of Africa.
In 1985, American filmmaker Sydney Pollack turned that 1937 autobiography, and other sources, into a romantic melodrama with Meryl Streep as Blixen. Out of Africa won hearts, generated box office revenue, promoted safari tourism in Kenya and scored seven Academy Awards.
Inexplicably, the Oscar haul included best picture. More about this perplexing, if staggeringly beautiful, epic in a moment.
Blixen’s actual farm house, Mbagathi, is now the Karen Blixen Museum, located in the affluent Nairobi suburb of Karen. The handsome dwelling is filled with some of Blixen’s belongings and more so by props donated by Universal Pictures.
Because Mbagathi was unavailable at the time, Pollack positioned cinematographer David Watkin at Blixen’s first Kenyan house, the nearby Mbogani. No matter, Hollywood always takes liberties. As I have often warned, no one should ever believe most of what they see in a film, even when it is “based on” or “inspired by” a true story. Getting “the essence” right is a better benchmark.
What I did not realize when writing about Out of Africa in 1985 was how much Pollack & company did get right. It took a 2019 African safari, and time spent in Kenya with Kenyans, to understand what really matters.
This personal reassessment astounds me. Not that film critics refuse to change their minds in the years following first impressions. But rarely does it occur for the reasons I have finally come to appreciate Out of Africa, both as a book and as a movie.
Okay, the movie is still melodramatic. The focus is still on Karen Blixen’s bad marriage to a philandering Swedish baron (played by Klaus Maria Brandauer) and her subsequent love affair with English big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton (played as a pseudo-American by Robert Redford).
Streep and Brandauer are excellent. But Redford’s boyish charm cannot salvage his boring performance. His fireside proclamations as the untamed Finch Hatton ring hollow. The love affair is a fizzle, not a sizzle.
Instead, the movie soars through its dramatization of racial and cultural complexity. At a time of British racism and colonial segregation, Blixen did things differently — and the transcendent Streep delivers this message with subtle power and dignity. We feel Blixen’s empathy for, and understanding of, the indigenous peoples, especially the Kikuyu who worked on her coffee plantation. I repeatedly experienced a modern echo of that myself in Kenya.
Leave the last word to the Kenyan guide who escorted my wife, Rachel Sa, and I around the Karen Blixen Museum. “We respect and revere her,” the young woman said of Blixen, who started a school, provided medical aid, and fought to give the Kikuyu land when she returned to Denmark in 1931. “Karen Blixen was not like the others.”
This is the gift Out of Africa still offers today.
|Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.
A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Life readers.