Lost the 1985 Best Actress Oscar to Geraldine Page in “The Trip to
Sydney Pollack’s “Out of Africa” is all but cursed from the moment Meryl Streep’s voice-over booms out the words, “I had a farm in Africa…” – which, incidentally, happens in the first five minutes. Wholly distracting to the director’s establishing shots of grassy, romantic plains and Mogambo-style odes to wildlife, Streep’s intonation is supposedly inflective of an elder, Danish woman seeping out her last remaining nostalgic syllables. The grating reality is that there’s an element of Greer Garson’s elder Mrs. Parkington going on here; even if we never see Streep’s Karen Blixen age as drastically, or frown as raptly as Greer’s curious creation.
As is the case with so much of “Out of Africa” Blixen’s retrospective storytelling smacks of filmmaking built on themes inspired by literary classics, but with none of the dramatic clout or sound character development required to vitalise a period adventure. Instead this is more like a later David Lean epic, rife with weak symbolism and muted exchanges, and a safari setting so estranged from the characters that one struggles to surmise why on earth Streep’s Karen wants to be there in the first place. She may rock Milena Canonero’s costumes like a pro but otherwise Streep can’t engage with her aesthetic surroundings like a woman excited to be involved in new climates, relationships, communities; and in pockets of “Out of Africa” she navigates the pretty vacancy of Pollack’s inane setting like a lost, wounded animal.
She very nearly is wounded in a scene where a lion considers her for its dinner, only to act just as
Redford’s Denys suspects and veer off into the wilderness of its own accord. It’s one of those flimsy attempts to develop the trust in Karen and Denys’ barely-there relationship, which is apparently blossoming even as Streep and Redford flounder under the self-consciousness of their scenes together. The pair are strangely neutered as personalities under the pressure of having to carry the Romance in the Romantic Epic, and their tryst only really garners interest when the film explores the pair’s opposing views on commitment. Streep’s at her finest when she telegraphs Karen’s struggle between free-spirited compassion and her staunch ideals of exclusive coupledom, clearly exasperated by Denys’ bachelor-style distancing, but wise not to foist her views so recklessly as to drive him away. Eventually, Karen reverts to that modus operandi as a confluence of lovestruck emotion, but Streep underplays this selfish streak to her character for longer than many an Actress would, and rallies us to a romantic cause without really appearing to try.
Despite the already-established promotion of romance as the film’s chief entity, “Out of Africa” and Streep achieve much deeper degrees of emotion through charting the disintegration of Blixen’s relationship with her Baron husband, played by a remarkable Klaus Maria Brandauer. Despite being socially-suited they never click as a couple (although she tries far harder than he does) and even after he behaves badly towards her Streep relays Karen’s strange affection for him - during and after their divorce – as a resigned, natural acceptance that their marriage was not meant to last. You can see that she admires his honesty, relates to the pressures of his standing and, crucially, empathises with his desire to be with someone who makes him happy. Streep’s attitude towards him oscillates between how one might treat an enemy, a maverick, a friend; and for however ephemeral a time, gives us a reason to cling onto Karen Blixen – a woman perhaps underserved by this lengthy, conventional tale.
There are chapters of “Out of Africa” that really alienate Streep; that paint Karen as a dilettante, ponderous and impenetrable like her Sarah was in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” Much of that is hardly fair on an Actress quite marooned in a film geared towards looking like a finished article than being that finished article: this is a performance certainly not belonging to the healthy echelons of Streep’s vast collection of Academy notices, but she’s still a prize asset to a production devoted to forests and sands.