Recently, in another space, I poked a bit of fun at Meryl Streep, who has made a specialty of exotic accents. She has been a southern belle, the French lieutenant's woman, the Polish refugee Sophie. She's getting to be a bit like the boys in the Dickens novel who "do the police in different voices."
That was before I saw Streep's performance in Sydney Pollack's "Out of Africa," in which she plays the great Danish writer Karen Blixen. For 17 adventurous years, long before she published her books under the pen name Isak Dinesen, the Baroness Blixen was a coffee planter in Kenya.
I had suspected that Streep was stretching her virtuosity a bit thin. On the contrary. At our neighborhood theater on New Year's Day, the audience clapped at the end of "Out of Africa," something that rarely happens there. But applause seems a minor tribute. This is a story as quietly simple as a Gospel, done with the emotional control of great Italian classics like "The Bicycle Thief" and "Il General della Rovere."
As a rule, powerful films -- "Lawrence of Arabia," let us say -- deal with the complexity of male conflicts and rivalries. "Out of Africa" is the story of a woman's heroism, and a convincing one.
Karen Blixen had two formidable foes. One was the lure of the bush and the safari for the men she loved and wanted at her side. The other was the conspiracy of fire, flood and climate against the solvency of her coffee plantation. (It is dramatically appropriate, and pardonable, that these contests are considerably sharpened in the film.)
Dinesen herself died, full of years and honors, almost 25 years ago. She was formidable, by all accounts. If she returned now, it would be at the risk of seeming a pale shadow of the imaginary heroine Streep evokes for us.
The other great character in "Out of Africa" is Africa, which too often these days we picture as a miasma of misery and misrule, as, in many places, it is. But this is an Africa in its days of innocence, more untenanted territory than polity, a place as yet "unviolated by ideas," as T.S. Eliot said in another connection.
Isak Dinesen went to Kenya on the eve of World War I. European -- mostly British -- planters, adventurers and drifters had come there to match wits and courage with the land, the tribes and the animals. This was before politics crept into the picture with the consolidation of colonial rule, and long before the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s finally chased the British out. The only political touch is a scene in which Streep throws herself to her knees before the new governor general, interceding for "her" Kikuyus, the gentle tribesmen she employed on her coffee plantation. I can't recall whether the scene is in the book "Out of Africa." It is powerful and plausible.
Some who find it hard to suspend political self-consciousness may find the representation of the Kikuyus and other tribesmen paternalistic or condescending -- a survival of the 1914 perspective. Yet Pollack's handling of this delicate problem is a model of its kind, unforced and artful. There's a bit of caricature in the old chief with the parasol who decrees that only the smallest children may be taught to read and write. But he's given one of the best lines, at the expense of the colonials. Reading, he says, "has done the British no good."
The Kikuyus were an aristocratic people of dignity, pride and loyalty, qualities that the film evokes. As a planter of aristocratic outlook, Dinesen suited them, and they her. In her book, she had offered a theory of the affinity: "The true aristocracy and the true proletariat of the world are both in understanding with tragedy. To them it is the fundamental principle of God, and the key -- the minor key -- to existence."
It is odd, even a bit eerie, to reflect that this lingering affinity survives still. Nairobi seems to be one of the few African capitals where the races do not merely coexist but are genuinely at ease with one another. Perhaps Dinesen got it right when she found, in the appreciation of tragedy, a common denominator.
Dinesen's own particular tragedy in the story is her romance with the hunter-adventurer Denys Finch-Hatton (played by Robert Redford). It ends with a burial scene on one of those unspoiled African hilltops, with vistas stretching scores of miles. Finch-Hatton has died in a plane crash. Over his open grave Streep/Dinesen reads lines from Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young" (" . . . Smart lad to slip betimes away/ From fields where glory does not stay . . ."). It is, dramatically, a perilous moment, balanced on the brink of sentimentality. But as usual the balance holds; there is no false note. The photography and editing are superb. We see Dinesen's hand scoop dirt as if to begin the burial ritual, then tremble and slowly empty itself without doing so.
"I know a song of Africa," Dinesen wrote, " . . . does Africa know a song of me?" Maybe not Africa, or the African wildlife she is speaking of. But for those who see this movie Streep has composed one and it is deeply stirring.