Posted on 1/16/13 12:40 PM
Lush but Ultimately Empty
Looking back on it, 1985 was actually an astonishing year in film. This is, I admit, just by looking at the year's Oscar nominees, which doesn't always give a fair view of things--some of the best films ever are hugely underrepresented, especially in the lists of winners--but in almost ever category that year, there were at least two films that deserved to win. It was the only year Akira Kurosawa was up in a competitive category, for Ran. Which lost to this. It was the year in which Terry Gilliam created a fascinating kind of dystopia, stunning in its art direction. Which lost to this. The incredibly risky story of Kiss of the Spider Woman made it onto the big screen. And lost to this. And, of course, it was the year of The Color Purple, nominated for an amazing eleven Academy Awards. While it didn't lose all of them to this, it still lost too many.
Karen Dinesen (Meryl Streep, who didn't win) is a wealthy Dane who is disappointed with her life. She agrees to marry Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer), an impoverished Danish count and her second cousin. She takes her belongings and her money to Kenya, where they start a coffee plantation together. Bror is a hunter and womanizer who infects Karen with syphilis. She is left in charge of the plantation--it was originally supposed to be a dairy farm--while he wanders about and sleeps with other women. She meets Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford), also a hunter, and they first become friends and then become lovers. However, he is determined not to be tied down by anything or anyone, and he also has lovers who aren't Karen. Bror wants a divorce, so he can marry another heiress, but Denys looks at it as nothing to him, since he's never planning to marry Karen anyway. Karen works hard to make a go of the coffee plantation, but with things like that, your own hard work isn't all that's necessary.
Part of the problem I had with this movie is that I simply didn't see the appeal of Denys. Okay, yes, he looked like Robert Redford, and even almost thirty years later, that's no bad thing. That being said, you know, there's more to life than looking like Robert Redford. Karen nails it when she complains that he says he wants her to be free, but the only freedom he gives her is the freedom to leave. She has no freedom to experience her own feelings. He has no interest in them and puts no value on them. He tells her that she puts too much value in things, and it's certainly true that there's little need for Limoges china in Kenya. However, he treats people as things and categorizes them both as equally worthless. He seems to think that he has a closer connection to Africa and to the animals, but his connection is based largely on killing them. Karen's concern for the village on her property is at least a connection to life, not death. Denys has little connection to life except through sex.
Though of course, Karen's connection is largely that of any number of colonialists who have spent time in Africa. She's mad when there doesn't appear to be land for the tribe who has lived where her plantation is for who knows how long, but at the same time, she thinks of them as "her" tribesmen. She lived in Africa for less than twenty years, if I'm doing my math right, and I don't think she ever learned the language of the people living on her land. She relies on Farah (Malick Bowens) to translate for her. Oh, I think she's right to make sure that the children have an education and that there is proper medicine available. However, I also think that she mostly isolates herself in a world of Europeans. There are three or four Africans with whom she connects, but she sheds all those connections at the end of the film. I believe she really loved Africa, but I think, as she did with Denys, that she loved it without really knowing it. She loved her idea of Africa as much as the real continent.
Which is not to say, of course, that the Africa shown in the film isn't truly beautiful. The scene where Denys takes Karen for a flight is stunning whenever the main characters aren't actually onscreen. (When they are, it's clear that we're watching bad optics work.) The music seems heavily inspired by the Romantic composers, but the lyrical ones. Not the bombastic ones. Sort of a Debussy kind of feel. (And, no, I don't like it anywhere near as much as the earthier score with a dozen credited composers for The Color Purple.) The costumes are fine, though they do fail my "I can costume that" criteria for a deserving Oscar winner. (It's the only category Ran won.) However, the movie doesn't inspire me to run out and read the books of Karen Blixen, and it certainly doesn't change my opinion of Meryl Streep. She's sort of stumbling through trying to look both sexy and ethereal, and I don't think she succeeds. It is just possible, however, that I am prejudiced on that point.