Review by Eva Holland
Posted on 18 April 2007
Source Universal Studios DVD
“I had a farm in Africa,” an aged woman says haltingly as the film begins, to an accompanying montage of East African scenery: plains, lakes, snow-capped mountains. The line is repeated throughout the film, in which the landscape will play a prominent role.
Out of Africa is an adaptation of Karen Blixen’s 1937 memoir of the same name, about her years spent managing a coffee farm in the highlands of what was British East Africa. The film follows Blixen from her marriage of convenience to Baron Bror Blixen and her arrival in Kenya, to her early struggles with both the coffee farm and marriage, and her eventual, longstanding relationship with hunter and Africa-enthusiast Denys Finch-Hatton. Along the way, director Sydney Pollack gives the viewer a taste of colonial life in Kenya in the first half of the twentieth century—without, however, much frank discussion of the impact of imperialism on the region.
The first part of the film – concerning Blixen’s arrival in Kenya and her struggles to adjust to her new life – offers hints of the isolation experienced by the first settlers in the region. Kenya had a reputation for having the highest suicide rate among its white settlers of any British colony, and it’s compelling that a film that goes beyond the wealth and extravagance of colonial society to reveal the deep unhappiness underneath. Perhaps filmmakers fear that by depicting this side of colonialism, they risk indulging in a ‘poor little rich girl’ type of nearsightedness, dwelling on the comparatively mild sufferings of the aggressors rather than the repression of the victims. Nonetheless, it should be possible to show the hardships the colonists endured without implying any sort of judgment in their favour, and Pollack takes numerous opportunities to inform the viewer of the despair lurking just below the posh, gin-and-tonic-sipping surface. “If you’re going to make friends, you’d better do it here,” Bror Blixen tells his new wife when he notices her distaste for the British ‘club’ culture—“There’s no one else.” A few minutes later, one of those same club members asks Blixen whether she passed through London on her way out. “I thought you might have a newspaper,” he says with an edge of desperation. But when she replies that she came through Rome, his calm is quickly shrugged back into place: “There’s nothing in them anyway.”
When Karen Blixen’s efforts with the farm begin in earnest, the story of the settler community begins to fade into the background. Instead, it is her relationship with the local Africans – the Kikuyu – that takes priority. We watch her roll up her sleeves among the coffee plants, or among the sick children of the nearby village, and slowly gain the respect of the natives. She also gains the respect of her occasional visitor, the American Denys Finch-Hatton, who passes through between hunting trips and begins to re-evaluate the woman he first met on a train stuffed with china and porcelain that she had been unwilling to leave behind in Denmark.
It is here that my inner cynic begins to ask questions about what’s being omitted from the scenario. At no point in the film, for example, is there even a suggestion of violence being used against the African workers on Blixen’s farm—or by any of the settlers, even those who are explicitly set up as foils to Blixen’s hard work and genuine care. Meanwhile, as Finch-Hatton and Blixen grow closer, they engage in a number of discussions about the encroachment of the newer settlers on their beloved Kenyan hills and the peoples who live there. But the dialogue in these scenes tends toward the simplistic (“It’s their land, you see—we took it from them”) and both Blixen and Finch-Hatton blame only the latecomers for the changes being wrought on the landscape—neither appears to feel their presence might be a part of the problem.
Even so, their shared love for the land is genuine and deeply felt, and their romantic excursions offer plentiful cinematographic opportunities: Kenya’s tropical coastline, wide belt of plains, and darker highlands are all on full display, and the admittedly slow-moving story leaves the viewer plenty of time to enjoy the scenery. Meryl Streep’s Danish accent seems strained at times, but she is a powerful and sympathetic presence nonetheless, while Robert Redford offers all the sunburnt American charm his character requires.
One final observation from my inner cynic: when tragedy inevitably strikes near the conclusion of the film, Blixen suddenly finds herself supported by a caring, tightly-knit colonial community. The isolation and despair of the early scenes has apparently been forgotten as the settlers she snubbed in the past (and was snubbed by in return) rally around her. She is finally accepted and respected by both white and black, and leaves Africa as a figure simultaneously tragic and triumphant. It’s a beautiful ending to a beautiful movie—much more beautiful, I can’t help but suspect, than the realities of the colonial society that inspired it.