Out of Africa Reviews
Like many prestige pictures, it's a sweeping romantic historical epic based on actual events and various published sources. It's a lengthy movie too, which makes me wonder if all prestige pictures have to be pushing 3 hours if not longer. Thankfully that's not a requirement to win Best Picture, though many of those winners do have some long running times, sometimes unnecessarily so.
This particular film, despite being a lengthy romantic historical epic is one I found myself enjoying more than I sometimes tend to with these sorts of things. It is the stroy of a Danish Baroness who, from 1914-1931 ran a coffee plantation with her philandering husband in Kenya. While there, she broke out of her shell, falling in love with both the land and a big game hunter who really showed her how to live.
It's a good story, but this movie is really just a rather simple romantic melodrama that seems really special because of the wodnerful costumes, art direction, set design, landscapes, music, and cinematography. Oh yeah, and the terrific performances. If it weren't for these things, this film wouldn't be all that great. For what it is though, it is enjoyable.
Meryl Streep is fantastic as always, adding another well done accent to her resume. Robert Redford is also really good, though, curiously enough, he plays a Brit who speaks with an American accent... Apparently Redford wanted to use a Brit. accent and even filmed some stuff using it, but Sydney Pollack decided that an All-American like Redford speaking with a British accent might confuse people so he had him not use it. Hmm, that's an odd decision, and not a good one either. Michael Kitchen and Klaus Maria Brandauer also give good performances, though this is mainly the Streep and Redford show. The actors playing the Africans with more substantial roles are also not bad.
Many films involving Europeans in exotic places tend to carry a certain bias in their portrayal of the foreign land and people. This film is no exception, but thankfully it doesn't come off quite as pandering and typical as it could have.
Here's the thing: this movie has some interesting characters and situations, but those are least least interesting parts of the movie, even though they are supposed to be. What really had me was the cinematogrpahy and the John Barry's score, even though I could detect some shades of his later score for Dances With Wolves. The film tries to put things into a historical context, but I felt they could have done more with it, and had the filmfocus less on the character romance, and more on some sort fo specific plot. I mean hell, it's set in Africa from 1914-1931. There's all sorts of great material there for a truly wonderful film.
Okay, enough of that. I did like this movie, but I don't think it's truly that special. Yes, some of it is impressive, but it mostly just plays it safe and follows formula. Sometimes, that's okay, but I was really expecting more. However, I liked it enough to give it the rating I've given it, so there.
This movie features a strong-willed woman who makes the decisions in a frontier land at a time when most women seemed to be nothing but fluff.
There is no denying Out of Africa looks good. David Watkin has form as a cinematographer, having shot both The Devils and Chariots of Fire, and he offers up a good range of work, from solid wide shots of the Kenyan plains to ornate interiors which have a still life quality to them. The score is pretty good as well -- John Barry, who composed the James Bond theme, also has experience with epics, having scored the likes of Zulu and The Lion in Winter. He blends his own compositions with the recordings of Mozart to make certain moments swell to just the right degree.
Beyond that, Out of Africa is neither more nor less than baggy nonsense. Its first and biggest problem, like so many epics, is its length. In the words of Mark Kermode, "length is not a measure of depth": so often the films which go on the longest actually have the least to day. At 160 minutes, Out of Africa is not interminable -- it's shorter than all three Lord of the Rings and way, way shorter than Heaven's Gate. But considering the film's message and the limited extent of character development, it could have been an hour shorter and still got all its ideas across.
There is an argument with historical epics for keeping the pace slow, to capture how it would feel to live in a world before high-speed broadband and 200mph supercars. The most successful film to do this is Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, which captures the painterly, stately quality of the 18th century and deliberately takes its time so that we as an audience are forced to slow down and come into the past.
But despite his best efforts, Pollock is no Kubrick, and Out of Africa is not so much painterly as ponderous. It feels like the same encounters and character developments are being repeated, literally ad nauseum, and you never get the sense of the film wanting to move forward. It's like being led across Africa by a guide who constantly wants to stop and admire the view: it's pretty, but you never really go anywhere.
Lord Attenborough once remarked that E.T. was a better film than Gandhi, since the latter was "a piece of narration, rather than a piece of cinema". For all its strengths, Gandhi relies on some kind of foreknowledge of the character and the history to achieve a complete emotional impact. Out of Africa falls into the same trap: it looks good, and has a couple of decent performances (including Leslie Phillips on his very best behaviour), but ultimately it isn't very 'dramatic', or indeed 'romantic'. Meryl Streep's sporadic narration virtually carries the film, and at points is the only semblance of narrative we have. Every time it attempts to build up something important, it cuts to something loud and fleeting like a firework display or a chariot race. As much as Pollock admires David Lean, he does not have the gumption to direct like him.
Much like Pollock's later film The Interpreter, Out of Africa is strangely coy about the nitty-gritty of its politics, being content to offer up brief suggestions of where it stands but shying away from giving further comment. It keeps dodging any given opportunity to explore themes deeper than its central story, for instance the role of women in Africa. Early on in the film Karen Blixen is forced to leave a bar which only serves men -- a matter which isn't raised again until she is kneeling before Sir Joseph. The matter seems to be resolved when the men invite her for a whisky before she leaves, but resolved to what end? The film makes no attempt outside of these brief scenes to look at the role of women in white African society, a wasted opportunity made worse by the casting of Streep who revels in playing strong-willed women.
The same goes for the border war the white men are fighting, which is only hinted at on a couple of occasions. The sub-plot about Blixen contracting syphilis seems completely pointless, since it is dismissed within the space of 20 minutes. It is treated so flippantly and so unnecessary to the character that any editor worth their salt would have taken it out. The central point is that epics have to take account of their surroundings: it may be centrally a love story, but love stories never happen in isolation.
This brings us on to the romantic relationship at the heart of Out of Africa. All hopes of this being half-decent are scuppered by the below-par central performances. Streep is capable of great work -- think of Sophie's Choice, Ironweed or Kramer vs. Kramer -- but here she is really, really annoying. Part of this is her failed attempt at the Danish accent, which starts off promising but eventually becomes laughable as it wanders in and out of Dutch. But mostly it is because her character is so completely unlovable. She may be strong-willed, but she is also preening, selfish, distant and haughty. In the first hour especially, she makes lots of melodramatic turns away from the camera, and there is no great fall from grace which give her a sense of humility.
Robert Redford is not much better, though for entirely different reasons. Having oozed roguish charm in both Butch Cassidy and The Sting, here he feels lost and confused, a situation not helped by a script which keeps its characters' lips at arm's length for nearly two hours. Until then he wanders in and out of the story as he sees fit, always turning up when Streep needs him before prompting disappearing. The relationship has so little chemistry that you end up wishing one of them would be mauled by a lion or accidentally shot by the other: neither would make much sense, but both would at least be more exciting.
Out of Africa is a turgid and ponderous film, and one of the least-deserving winners of the Best Picture Oscar. Within its wide-angle landscapes and sweeping score there is a better, tighter, more thought-provoking story; and it may well be that the original stories are insightful and compelling. But the film is neither of these, squandering the best (and worst) efforts of its actors and ending up with something very boring indeed. It has none of the awe-factor of Doctor Zhivago, very little of Gandhi's intelligence, and precious little of the romantic tension of The Colour Purple (which though very flawed is the better film). Streep fans may leap to its defence, but it's a cold experience for those of us who aren't so easily seduced.
The film has a lot going for it, notably its absolutely beautiful cinematography, capturing the captivating and epic African wilderness. Its cast is an admirable one, with Meryl Streep giving her characteristic powerhouse performance, supported by the talented Robert Redford and even Klaus Maria Brandauer. We can't help but be taken with their dynamics, and with the films backdrop, we are swept up in the sheer gravitas of what's going on. This keeps the film engaging and enjoyable for its almost three hour run.
There's two notable criticisms, however, that stand out for the Oscar winning epic. One, the narration by Meryl Streep is overdone, and the accent much too thick, something that doesn't match her cadence in the actual film. This is both annoying and distracting. Second, the relationship between Streep and Redford is never quite as believable as it should be. The chemistry between the two seemed inconsistent, with Redford's characterization being the weakest of the film. We never quite "buy" him, we're introduced to him in one of the opening scenes, and the film never feels much of a need to really elaborate on his back-story or motivations outside of that.
Overall, however, the film is simply too well executed from both a technical level, and from a narrative standpoint not be compelled by.
It's not like this film doesn't warrant something of a hefty length, as its subject matter and concepts are, to one degree or another, reasonably broad in scope, yet at 161 minutes, the film outstays its welcome, going padded out by overdrawn material, and even a couple of pieces of filler. Now, to my surprise, the film's padding doesn't entirely feel all that much like all-out bloating, yet the fact of the matter is that the film does drag along on more than a few occasions, limping from one point to another, if not going stopped on the spot by material that is simply cuttable, and it doesn't help that the film is slow to begin with. Okay, now, earlier, I joked that this film is kind of dull, and lord knows that everyone, except maybe grandmothers, has said time and again that this film gets to be a bit dull, but really, the film isn't all that boring, yet it is slow, and sometimes considerably more than it should be. The film dries up and loses momentum all too often, and while it never descends as low as boring, it loses steam something fierce on far too many occasions, which weakens the film's overall bite little by little, until, after a while, consequence goes in and out, and that is a big no-no with a film of this type. Now, we're not dealing with a three-hour military invasion epic, so it's not like consequence is immediate, or even all that immensely pressing, yet it is there, and occasionally lost in the midst of all of this padding and slowness. Your attention is certainly bound to go lost in the midst of the film's dragging, because although the film isn't entirely padded to the point of being excessively bloated, not entirely slow to the point of being terribly dull, the subtle missteps by this film go a long way, often tainting the film's substance, expelling your engagement and altogether drying up the film, almost to the point of driving the film beneath genuinely good. However, the film stands its ground, taking much damages from the padding and slowness that all but renders it underwhelming, yet coming out the other end, certainly not as good as it should be, but good enough to keep you going, or at least your aesthetic side.
David Watkin's cinematography owes much of its impressiveness being strong for its time, as it has not aged especially well, yet it has still aged well nonetheless, being reasonably and attractively detailed, with occasions where it finds the right time and place for lighting and leaves the film to all but take your breath away. This fine photography is certainly complimentary to other aspects of the film's art direction, as the production designs have a kind of marriage of authenticity and artistry that may not be especially spectacular or eye-catching (Don't go in expecting anything close to a "Titanic" level of authenticity-artistry-marriage attractiveness), yet still catches your eye, to a certain degree, while what catches your attention the most, to a certain extent, might very well have to be the work of the late, great John Barry. Like many other aspects of the film, Barry's score is perhaps more impressive as a standout of its time, yet remains among the aspects that date the most comfortably, still retaining much unique grace that's often tenderly subtle in its poignancy, sometimes engrossing in its broader moments, occasionally grand in its moving and sweeping moments and consistently lively in a fashion that often sustains enough of your attention when it is played, while what sustains enough your investment are the man who stands behind the substance, and I certainly don't mean Sydney Pollack. Kurt Luedtke's screenplay is flawed, yet hits more than misses, holding quite a bit of good dialogue, as well as a structrue that is decidedly imperfect, yet reasonably strong, for although Sydney Pollack's direction often betrays the quality of Luedtke's writing, you can still sense enough of Luedtke's touch for this fine story to spring to life just enough to hold your investment, with the people who lock in that investment and keep the film from making its descent beneath genuinely good being the people who stand in front of the camera, or at least three certain people. With all of the accolades and whatnot, Klaus Maria Brandauer has hardly anything to do, outside of portray brothers believably, which he does, portraying the individual distinctiveness of Bror and Hans Blixen so sharply that it doesn't take long before you forget that these brothers are played by the same person, while Robert Redford, even his having top billing, isn't used very often, and has nearly nothing to do when he is used, yet he engaged all the same through charisma, as well as his capturing Denys Finch Hatton's layers. As for leading lady Meryl Streep, well, it should pretty much go without saying that she stands out the most, nailing a Danish accent and emitting strong charisma, as well as even a degree of emotional range in her portrayal of Karen Blixen's facing gain, loss, humility, tragedy and many other things that, well, aren't really played up by Pollack's borderline bland direction, yet remain palpable enough, thanks to Streep's strong performance. Like the flaws, the strengths are in limited supply, yet also like the flaws, what strengths there are go a long way, and with there being just a few more strengths than flaws, the film comes out reasonably rewarding, for although the film really does deserve to be better, at the end of the day, you're likely to walk away having enjoyed yourself considerably.
In the end, the film isn't necessarily all that bloated or dull, yet its padding and slowness is considerably problematic all that same, slowing down the film's momentum, diluting the film's substance and focus and altogether weakening the film's bite, until the final product comes out as often disengaging and almost underwhelming, yet it never makes that plunge, catching your eyes with fine cinematography and art direction, your ears with John Barry's poignant score and, finally, your investment with Kurt Luedtke's flawed yet generally sharp writing, as well as with quite a few compelling performances, the most compelling of which being by Meryl Streep, who helps greatly in leaving "Out of Africa" to stand as an enjoyable and occasionally moving drama, even with its many shortcomings.
3/5 - Good