Universal has reissued the Academy Award-winning romantic epic Out of Africa on Blu-ray in a digibook package as part of their 100th Anniversary Collector’s Series. The film has been restored and remastered since its previous high definition release in 2010. Originally released in 1985, Out of Africa won seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Unfortunately, the film plays out more as an unfocused travelogue rather than an emotionally involving narrative. The gorgeous cinematography can’t compensate for the uninteresting characters and meandering plot.
Meryl Streep stars as Karen Blixen, a very wealthy Danish woman who marries Baron Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer). The union is born not out of love, but of shared business interests. This being 1913, the British occupy East Africa and that’s where the Blixens set up camp. The newlyweds get off to a bad start when Bror changes their agreed upon plan without asking Karen’s opinion. Instead of a dairy farm, the couple will run a coffee plantation. This infuriates Karen, but she goes along with it. Bror is always absent, running around Africa hunting game, leaving Karen to oversee the farming duties.
Enter Denys Hatton, an impossibly handsome, irresistibly charming American. As played by Robert Redford, Denys is a magnetic free-spirit. When Karen first meets him, he’s delivering some elephant tusks to a train in the middle of nowhere. After a brief chat, he announces he is continuing onward. Karen is astonished to see him simply walk back out into the desert. She is drawn to his self-sufficiency and supreme confidence. The fact that he can pilot a plane is a plus, as he thrills Karen by taking her flying. But the roguish Denys can’t be pinned down to one woman or one residence. Karen sadly contracts syphilis from her husband, undergoing a draining treatment regimen during the pre-antibiotic age. Health problems continue to plague her even after treatment. The coffee plantation turns out to be unmanageable and hardly a reliable source of income. Karen’s unhappy existence continues on, with writing being her primary means of refuge.
From a technical standpoint, it’s easy to see why critics were bowled over by this film. The sweeping score, breathtaking scenery, and another in a long line of inspired performances by Meryl Streep (this time with a Danish accent) all combine for a well-produced epic. But it never really drew me in on an emotional level. The rugged everyman act that Redford affects is hard to swallow. He comes off more as a symbol of male virility rather than a fully realized character. Karen and Denys are boring people and the scenic African vistas don’t make them any less so. Like so many films based on novels, Out of Africa suffers from a lack of focus in the storytelling. It’s a sprawling narrative that doesn’t gel into anything unified.
Out of Africa, with its lush, exotic scenery, is the kind of movie that really needs an outstanding high definition transfer. Thankfully, Universal has delivered a superb 1080p presentation. While I have not seen the earlier Blu-ray release, by most accounts it seems that transfer was less than satisfactory on a number of levels. I found very little to complain about with the new transfer, which boasts a high level of fine detail. The colors are warm and vibrant, especially during the many panoramic outdoor shots. Film grain appears natural and appropriate for a film of its era. This is an attractive transfer that does justice to David Watkin’s award-winning cinematography.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is very good without being particularly stunning. That’s okay though, because the original sound design didn’t call for sonic fireworks to begin with. The best thing about the soundtrack (and arguably the entire movie) is John Barry’s beautiful score. The music is mixed very well, subtly blending in with dialogue but full-bodied when featured on its own. Dialogue presents no problems. The African environments allow for the mix to show off an impressive array of quiet atmospheric sound effects and animal noises. Out of Africa won the Oscar for Best Sound and luckily those technicians have been honored with this disc’s solid audio presentation.
The supplemental features have been carried over from a previous DVD special edition, including a commentary track by director-producer Sydney Pollack. The video features are all presented in annoying standard definition. The feature-length documentary A Song of Africa takes a fairly deep look at the book from which the movie was adapted. The book’s author, Karen Blixen, is discussed at length. It’s an interesting piece for those who want to know more about the source material and the making of the movie. A 15 minute selection of deleted scenes is included, in pretty rough condition and presented in one, uninterrupted chunk. The hardcover digibook includes full color still photos and further information and trivia about the production.
Out of Africa is definitely not a crowd-pleaser. It’s a dry, slow, and ultimately depressing experience. But the star power of its two leads and its status as a Best Picture winner more or less guarantee the film continued interest.