Title: Out of Africa
Release Date: 18 December, 1985
Oscar Ceremony: 24 March, 1986
Director: Sydney Pollack
Starring: Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, Klaus Maria Brandauer
Nominees: The Color Purple, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Prizzi’s Honor, Witness
“I had a farm in Africa.” – Karen Blixen
What happened here? I love Meryl Streep, I love Robert Redford, I love gorgeous landscapes, and I love love stories, but this was a classic 161-minute snoozefest that never really seems to go anywhere. Described by many as “my mother’s favourite movie,” Out of Africa lacks the compelling emotional depth required of a great epic romance to succeed.
Loosely based on the autobiographical novel by Karen Blixen (written under the pseudonym “Isak Dinesen”), Out of Africa takes us through Blixen’s life as she moves from Denmark to Nairobi in 1913 to marry Baron Bror Blixen, her ex-lover’s brother. Together, they establish a coffee farm and hope to live off the profits. Unfortunately, the conditions where they live are not optimal for growing coffee, and the Baron seems more interested in hunting and sleeping with other women than he is in his union with Karen or their venture. However, throughout her many obstacles, Karen starts to develop a special relationship with British aristocratic big-game hunter Denys Finch-Hatton played by none other than Robert Redford.
Karen Blixen clearly had an interesting life and had a knack for writing about it, but I’m not entirely convinced that it’s the strongest choice for a movie, especially if you’re going to market it as something that looks like an 80’s romance novel for bored housewives. What could have been a powerful story about a woman’s relationship with a land and her values turned into an underwhelming love story between two Hollywood sweethearts, interspersed with the occasional presence of random animals and African native men.
I would never doubt Meryl Streep’s acting talents, but I’m going to have to doubt her accent talents. I’m no Danish expert, but I’m pretty sure her accent was made up. If she worked hard for it I’m sorry, but it just sounded so phoney and inconsistent. Looking back on it, I honestly think the movie could have gotten a whole extra star in my books if they could have let Meryl Streep speak with her regular American accent. Robert Redford’s character in the movie was British, but they still made him sound American, so why couldn’t they have just let Streep off the hook too?
The other thing is that late 19th and early 20th century British Empire colonialist atmospheres have always bored me. Everything always feels strangely out of place and I can never bring myself to care about the relationship between the British subjects and the natives. Thankfully, Out of Africa is not really a political movie, but it pretty much portrays Nairobi as an exotic place where fantasy romances occur between strong-willed women and free-spirited men that can’t be tamed. Robert Redford takes Meryl Streep on a plane ride to see mountains and flamingos, they enjoy a picnic on the crest of a kopje (small hill in an otherwise flat area), and they get close to magnificent savannah animals without getting eaten alive. This is not so much an Oscar-winning film as it is a travel brochure for Africa. Buy a ticket today and you might just fall in love with a gorgeous American hunk while you’re there.
Nothing of value happens in this movie. It’s literally just a glimpse into someone’s life. It’s like watching really slow reality television. Film critic Simon Miraudo writes: “Not even the meticulous Meryl can breathe life into a movie that never really gets started, and takes almost an hour to end.” It’s sad, but true. Still, I think I understand why the Academy loved it so much. Without even watching the whole thing, you can tell it’s Oscar bait. First of all, it’s based on a true story, and we all know that that alone is a big selling point. Second of all, it’s LONG and it’s considered an epic. We all know that’s an equally big selling point (actually, Out of Africa is only the 22nd longest movie to win Best Picture, so you can imagine). Third of all, it stars Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, which is a point that pretty much speaks for itself.
After watching the movie, there are a few other elements that stand out as well, namely the cinematography, art direction, and costume/set design. I wouldn’t be surprised if “colonial khaki” became the colour of the year in 1986 thanks to this. Seriously though, more often than not, Out of Africa is beautiful to look at. Then again, if that’s what I was looking for I could have just gone to a museum. John Barry’s score is also a big plus; it evokes the compelling emotions that the storyline lacks.
All in all, I’m not upset that this won. Perhaps one day I’ll watch it again and it’ll touch me more, but for now I don’t have enough patience. Until then, all I can say is that Out of Africa owes its Best Picture Oscar to the beautiful scenery, renowned actors, and to all the middle-aged women out there who have a burning desire to get their hair washed by Robert Redford in the jungle.