Interminably paced and insubstantial despite its bloated running time, Out of Africa is the kind of film the Academy Awards seemed to love in the ’80s — the epic drama, stretched out over exotic locales and coated with a glowing romanticizing of its subject matter. Think Gandhi in 1982 and The Last Emperor in 1987.
Like those two films, Out of Africa won Best Picture at the Oscars, but unlike the other two, its shortcomings glare much brighter than its merits. It lacks the photographic beauty of The Last Emperor and the striking lead performance at the heart of Gandhi. It’s a small story told big — way too big.
Meryl Streep turns in one of her most affected and least convincing roles as Karen Blixen, a well-to-do Danish woman who wrote a number of books on her experiences in Africa that served as the basis for the film. Blixen marries a Baron (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and moves to Africa with him, but finds a dissatisfying home life amidst the rugged beauty of the countryside.
That ruggedness is personified in big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford), a friend of her husband’s who she eventually falls in love with. Redford’s natural charm and good looks serve merely as window dressing here, and even in the midst of the most passionate throes of Hatton’s relationship with Karen, the character remains flat. He’s merely a symbol of something vaguely untamed and heroic.
Meanwhile, Karen begins teaching the African people of the area, setting up even more dichotomies between the European and the African, the civilized and the wild. Director Sydney Pollack keeps it reserved for the most part, steering the film clear of too much heavy-handedness, but the romantic notions of rejecting civilization aren’t explored in any interesting or thought-provoking manner.
The area where Out of Africa occasionally shines is its cinematography by David Watkin, which captures some truly lovely images of African plains and wildlife. It’s too bad the film is so focused on its rather dull human characters that the photography feels like it’s not living up to its potential.
The Blu-ray Disc
Out of Africa is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This is not a strong high def upgrade for the film, which obviously was touched up around the edges without undergoing any kind of true restoration. Images are occasionally soft, which is forgivable, but there are frequent signs of edge enhancement and unnatural-looking color boosting, which is very evident in many scenes that feature extra-green fields of grass that just look like undefined mush. The image does feature a clarity and occasional sharpness not present on the DVD version, but even this can be problematic as evidenced in an early scene that features some painfully obvious green screen work.
The audio is presented in a 5.1 DTS-HD track, and it’s a perfectly adequate mix with good ambient sound elements in the surrounds — most notably, nature sounds of the African landscape. Dialogue is clean in the front channel, and John Barry’s rather lush score fills out the mix nicely.
Extras are ported over here from the DVD release, including a full-length documentary that’s mostly on the real Blixen — a good historical context setter — as well as 15 minutes of deleted scenes and a commentary track from Pollack. The extras remain in standard-def.
The Blu-ray comes on a double-sided disc that features the DVD version on the flipside. It also includes one of the most hideous rethinks of a Blu-ray cover yet. They couldn’t have made the title’s typeface and the “Blu-ray + DVD” nonsense any bigger?
The Bottom Line
Out of Africa is a kind of film that doesn’t get made much anymore, and that’s a good thing. It’s epic romantic sweep feels more artificial than anything, and the Blu-ray has enough artificial moments of its own to cause some hesitation.