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Out of Africa

#221 - Out of Africa
Sydney Pollack, 1985

In the early years of the 20th century, a Danish baroness travels to Africa with her philandering husband and finds herself enamoured with a local game hunter.

My first impression of this lengthy Oscar-winning period romantic drama was not the most favourable one. It looked like the kind of Best Picture winner that is bound to supplement its win with a bevy of technical Oscars and maybe even a Best Director win, but that probably wouldn't stop me ignoring the fact that underneath the fancy technical side and cast of respectable actors lay an extremely dry excuse for a drama. During the first few minutes, I thought to myself, "This is going to be just like The English Patient, isn't it?" Fortunately, it's a testament to the talent on board that Out of Africa manages to overcome that particular first impression.

Meryl Streep naturally brings a lot to this particular table as Baroness Karen Blixen, the source's author who ends up going to Africa with her new husband (Klaus Maria Brandauer, who makes for a surprisingly decent "antagonist" without descending into smarmy villainy). Though she naturally goes through a period of adjustment, she eventually becomes so invested in the progress of their farm (unlike her constantly absent husband, whose absence provides a catalyst for caring so much about the farm) and the well-being of the native population that it becomes the focal point of the film's conflict. The film also gives equal time to her budding romantic relationship with a game hunter (Robert Redford, dependable as always) who proves a much more constant and empathetic presence in her life than her husband does. Various complications great and small ensue over the course of the film's three-hour running time

The technical side is definitely solid - the various landscapes and wildlife of Kenya are captured with some strong cinematography and the score is complementary and unobtrusive. The story is predictably a little familiar in its protracted treatment of an epic romance that does veer too close to white saviour territory with Streep's benevolent defence of the locals against much more amoral and imperialistic characters. Fortunately, it's carried reasonably well by Streep and Redford, who do have some decent chemistry - Streep in particular does well with her character's Danish accent, while Redford gets by on the basis of his usual charisma. While it's thankfully not the dreary slog that its running time and subject matter might success, it's still merely an alright example of a particular type of film without being genuinely spectacular (aside from its cinematography, of course). With this in mind, I might even try giving The English Patient a second chance.