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.