Making the Grades
“Happily ever after” endings don’t come easily in Africa, especially for Karen Dinesen (Meryl Streep). Even her money can’t buy her the romance she yearns for. After being scorned by her lover, the Danish woman asks her friend (Klaus Maria Brandauer) to marry her and move with her to Africa. Facing monetary woes, Bror agrees to the arrangement if only to maintain the standard of living he’s accustomed to. In exchange for financial security, the defunct aristocrat offers Karen the title of Baroness.
But by the time Karen arrives in British East Africa, she discovers Bror has decided to grow coffee instead of running a dairy. And to be truthful, he’s not even that interested in coffee. As soon as his new bride says “I do” in the most abbreviated of wedding ceremonies, he’s off hunting, leaving her to care for the plantation and the Kikuyu natives who live on their property. Soon his “hunting” trips include prey of a different kind, a fact that Karen discovers only after she is diagnosed with a severe case of syphilis.
Karen is a complicated character who wants love and companionship but must be fiercely independent to survive. And the more she tries to grasp at happiness the more it seems to elude her. After Karen asks Bror to move out of their home, she begins a sexual relationship with big game hunter Denys Hatton (Robert Redford). But he is no more willing to commit to Karen than Bror. He prefers instead to come and go as he pleases and vehemently refuses Karen’s desire for marriage after her divorce from Bror. Only after she has given away her virtue in the hopes of being loved does she realize “some things worth having come at a price.” And she wants to be one of them.
With her own finances waning, Karen finally has a bumper harvest. But her fortunes are short-lived. While her tenacity earns her the respect of the natives and the British subjects she lives amongst, she can’t recover from this latest disaster.
Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, this 1985 PG-rated film won Best Picture along with six other Oscars. David Watkin’s cinematography beautifully brings the plains of Africa to the big screen but the adapted screenplay (based on the story published by the real Karen Blixen under the pseudonym Isak Dineson) moves slowly. The only jolts in this dialogue-heavy film are a couple of lion attacks, the killing of some animals and a huge fire. Frequent drinking, cigarette use and implied sexual activities along with some brief depictions of a couple in bed together add to the adult theme of this movie.
Like me, many viewers will want Karen to succeed. Her dreams of love don’t seem unreasonable. Her willingness to work hard is admirable. Her compassion and growing respect for the natives deserve commendation, especially since the British occupiers care little for those they are displacing. But Karen is no Disney princess and as such she can’t count on a handsome prince to whisk her away. Instead she must face the realities of her life and choices.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Out of Africa.
Learn more about the real Karen Blixen and her career as writer Isak Dinesen.
Before their marriage Karen says they never spoke about children. What things should couples discuss before the wedding? Besides a desire for children, what other things would you want to know about your future spouse?
Why do the men at the club rebuff Karen when she first arrives in Africa? What does this say about British society’s attitude toward women at the time? Do the men treat women much differently than they do the natives? Why does the men’s respect for Karen grow by the time she leaves?
Denys asks Karen if a wedding would change their relationship and he says he wants the kind of love that doesn’t have to be proved. Does a person’s commitment to a relationship change with marriage? Is it easier to step away from a relationship that doesn’t include “a piece of paper”? Why does Karen feel like she would be of more worth to Denys if he married her? Does her willingness to be sexually active with him before marriage make it less likely he will marry her? Does real love need to be proved? If so, how can a person prove his or her love?