Judge Clark Douglas never had a farm in Africa, but he once had a farm on Farmville.
Based on a true story.
"I think that you had better get up. I think that God is coming."
Facts of the Case
After entering into a marriage of convenience, Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice) moves to Kenya with her husband Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer, Never Say Never Again) in the hopes of starting a coffee plantation there. The marriage is loveless and without passion; Bror is frequently away on business and cheats on his wife with any woman who will take him. This doesn't bother Karen too much, as she knew what she was getting into when she married him. Even so, there is a part of her that yearns to engage in a genuine romantic relationship. That yearning becomes even stronger after she meets Denys Finch-Hatton (Robert Redford, Spy Game), a rugged hunter who spends much of his time going on dangerous safaris. Denys has always been a lone wolf of sorts, but after a few encounters with Karen he begins to fall for her. Will this unlikely pair's romance survive?
As the packaging proudly proclaims, Out of Africa is the winner of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It's the sort of sweeping drama that Academy voters have historically gone nuts for, spiritually fitting in the same category as Lawrence of Arabia, Dances With Wolves, and The English Patient. It's also one of those films that tends to be mentioned frequently whenever movie buffs start discussing, "overrated Oscar winners." Sadly, it's somewhat deserving of that, as the film has quite a few problems of note. Even so, when taken on its own terms without all of the prestigious baggage, Out of Africa is an impressive cinematic outing.
Director Sydney Pollack does his best David Lean impression, immersing us in the world of early 20th Century Africa in a richly satisfying manner. The film's scope tends to dominate the proceedings, sometimes to a fault (the stunning visuals sometimes have a way of dwarfing the human drama). As a result of this, the best scenes in the movie are those that manage to successfully integrate the drama into the surroundings (or those that simply bring the surroundings to the center of attention). Regardless of how you may feel about the movie as a whole, there is no denying that the scene in which Redford and Streep fly across the African plains and observe the world below them is a genuinely iconic cinematic moment.
Streep's performance is another knockout turn from a woman who has deservedly earned just about every adulatory adjective there is to offer over the course of her career. This is another one of those roles that Streep completely disappears into, nailing both the specific accent and mannerisms of the character in a way that truly makes us believe that she is who the film says she is. It's certainly odd to contrast Streep's work to Redford's, which couldn't be more different. If Streep is an actress who usually attempts to remove her own identity for the sake of creating a character, Redford is an actor who usually attempts to adapt his characters to his own identity. In other words, he tends to play himself. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as Redford is a terrific movie star with a considerable screen presence, but his Midwestern charm seems odd when you consider that he's supposed to be an Englishman (Redford doesn't even bother trying on an accent). The two actors both do their thing remarkably well, but they don't quite mesh like they should. Any chemistry between the two is generated by the imagery and the music; the actors seem unable to enhance each other. It's a good thing the film ends the way it does, because I'm not sure I would have really believed an ending that forced the two to live happily ever after together.
There's also the distinct sense that Pollack is providing us a rather narrow view of Africa, specifically the view of a white outsider. All of the natives are only regarded in relation how they affect the lives of the foreign protagonists; though they're treated respectfully the movie seems to regard them in a somewhat condescending way. Karen's interactions with her servants have that sentimental and slightly off-key Very Special Moment feel about them, as if we're supposed to look on in awe at the fact that she treats them like real humans. The point-of-view is acceptable considering that Karen is the one telling the story, but it doesn't do the film any favors.
Alas, I'm starting to get caught up in complaints, but my overall view towards the film is a positive one. It's certainly an easy film to admire, as it's masterful on a technical level and it actually pulls off quite a lot without ever making a big deal about doing so. In its own way, it manages to gives us a portrait of a certain place at a certain time from many different angles. Respectable as it is, it's the lack of emotional weight that prevents the movie from ever becoming anything more than merely "good."
I have to confess my disappointment with this Blu-ray release, because Out of Africa is a film that deserves to look stunning. Instead, we get a rather mediocre transfer that is severely lacking in detail. Those sweeping shots of vast stretches of land don't quite manage to achieve maximum impact due to that lack of detail, which made me quite sad. While I didn't exactly expect Planet Earth, I certainly expected better. Sometimes the image is too soft, plus there's a surprisingly steady stream of scratches and flecks. Darker scenes suffer from poor shadow delineation, and flesh tones sometimes look too pinkish. Audio is better, though the movie has surprisingly limited sound design given the exotic location. John Barry's terrific score sounds flat-out amazing though, and when it kicks in it really envelops the room in a rich, strong way. Supplements are ported over from the previous special edition DVD, including a commentary from Pollack, an excellent 50-minute documentary called "A Song of Africa," deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer.
Oh, and did I mention that the disc is one of those new "flipper" discs from Universal containing the hi-def version of the film on one side and a DVD version on the other side? Some may be a fan, but let me state in no uncertain terms that I think this is a terrible idea. I'm fine with including a DVD copy on a separate disc, but the flipper disc was a bad idea when it was first introduced years ago and it's still a bad idea now.
Out of Africa is a decent film, just not an Oscar-worthy one (at least in the Best Picture department…the technical awards it won are well-deserved). Fans of the movie will be disappointed to discover that this new Blu-ray release isn't really worth an upgrade.
The film is not guilty, but the Blu-ray release is guilty of failing to
provide this visually remarkable film with the transfer that it deserves.
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