Out of Africa
“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.