Cross the country movies and the exotic British epics of last year, and you get "Out of Africa," purportedly based on the life and work of Danish writer Isak Dinesen (the pen name of Karen Blixen). Numbingly paced and portentously orchestrated, it's the ultimate Christmas elephant.
Stifled by turn-of-the-century Danish society, rebounding from a bad love affair, Karen Dinesen (Meryl Streep) marries her cousin Baron Bror von Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and travels to Kenya, where she is received as the Baroness Blixen and takes up raising coffee. In quick succession, she learns that: the local aristocracy, hanging out in the British men's club, is every bit as stifling as the one she just left; coffee farming high in the hills is one tough nut (bean?) to crack; and the baron is a bounder, more interested in hunting than in farming, and more interested in other women than in her.
But Blixen is a tough nut to crack, too. Storms, prejudice, marauding lions, her husband's infidelities, rising interest rates, falling coffee prices, syphilis, the treatment for syphilis (at the time, arsenic) -- all fail to bring her down. She befriends the natives, who become allies in her struggle, but her most valuable ally is Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford), a big-game hunter who goes for her brand of spunk. Finch Hatton becomes her friend and, later (after she's sent the baron packing), her lover.
"Out of Africa" (which runs 2 1/2 hours and seems even longer) has little in the way of narrative drive; you watch Blixen, despite her difficulties, fall in love with the Dark Continent, and you're intended to fall in love with it, too. But director Sydney Pollack's landscapes, though picturesque enough, lack the majesty of, say, David Lean's, while his stiff upper lip out-Lean's Lean -- paradoxically, "Out of Africa" is a kind of epic of understatement. In what's supposed to be one of the movie's emotional climaxes, for example, Blixen, hitherto banned from the men's club, is invited in for a drink; she utters a brief nonsense toast, knocks back a whisky, is greeted with "harrumph" and "hear! hear!" and exits. Harrumph, indeed.
The epigrammatic script (by Kurt Luedtke) is full of protestations demanding that we let the Africans be African, how mystical and ineffable it all is, how inscrutable its gods, but because the movie never really gets inside Africa, its claims seem like an excuse -- it's not that Africa is unknowable, it's just that "Out of Africa" never gets to know it. At its heart, "Out of Africa" stays out of Africa -- it rarely seems more than an elevated form of tourism. "I had a farm in Ah-free-kah," Streep says endlessly in voice-over, but the line has no resonance -- it's supposed to lull you like a mantra, but like the rest of the movie, it ends up lulling you a bit more than it ought.
The point of view isn't Blixen's, but Finch Hatton's. He's the one who sees Africa as mysterious and likes it that way; Blixen is more of a roll-up-your-sleeves type, less given to meditating on the wild's majesty, more inclined to actually try living with the people there. But whenever she attempts to do so, as when she sets up a school to teach the Africans English, Finch Hatton scolds her and accuses her of trying to make them into "little Englishmen," and Pollock and Luedtke are clearly in his camp. The movie's just another piece of sentimental anti-imperialism, Hollywood style.
Poor Brandauer tries to breathe some life into "Out of Africa" -- his acting is a series of s's, his eyes full of bobbing-and-weaving mischief. He's got a kind of Jack Nicholson quality, that rare ability to make a heinous seducer seem lovably like Peck's Bad Boy. While everyone else is declaring how much they love Africa, Brandauer's baron seems to be the only one enjoying the place. Unfortunately, he's kept on the margins, second fiddle to Redford, whose line readings sound as hollow as bamboo breaking. Redford's aged badly -- gaunt and creased, he looks now like a New York anchorman on his last legs. And it's almost shocking to see the actor who grabbed the first closeup in "Butch Cassidy" till his fingernails bled giving a performance so withdrawn and diffident. His Finch Hatton is hardly the man to sweep a woman off her feet; it's more likely he'd be doing the fainting, evidently from malaria.
For Meryl Streep, Blixen is just another exercise in pain and foreign accents in a period setting, where what you want at this stage is to see Streep sexy, funny and contemporary -- qualities she's only teasingly hinted at thus far. Then again, it couldn't have been easy playing against Redford or with a script in which a thudding moment of romance goes like this: She shoots lion; he shoots lion; he wipes blood from her lip. What a woman!
Last year's country trilogy made The Strong Woman into a cliche' Streep can't escape, and, like the worst of those movies, "Out of Africa" is really an exercise in yuppie fantasy and liberal homiletics. Again and again, the movie crosscuts from Blixen laboring amongst the natives to scenes of her and Finch Hatton sitting over their fruit and cheese by the campfire, Mozart playing on a portable phonograph; she glows adoringly as he bullies her with his rants and then shakes his head in wonderment over his own insights. This may be the silliest serious movie since "Reds." When you finally get the heck out of Africa, it's not a second too soon.