Out of Africa


Out of Africa

Actors will do just about anything to be in a movie with Meryl Streep.

(1985) Drama (Universal) Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Michael Kitchen, Malick Bowens, Joseph Thiaka, Stephen Kinyanjul, Michael Gough, Suzanna Hamilton, Rachel Kempson, Graham Crowden, Leslie Phillips, Shane Rimmer. Directed by Sydney Pollack

 

Africa is a place that stimulates the imagination. It is a continent largely untamed in our imagination, full of wild animals and exotic tribes. Those who travel there find sometimes that it exceeds the imagination; to others it is a savage, uncivilized place. There are those who hate the heat and the culture of Africa; others fall in love with it and retain a kind of obsession.

Karen Blixen (Streep) was a young Danish woman who found her life in Denmark lacking in adventure. One of her friends, Baron Bror von Blixen (Brandauer) was single and similarly bored. They decided to marry, even though Bror had misgivings about his ability to remain faithful.

They decided to buy a dairy farm in what is now Kenya in the Ngong Hills outside of Nairobi. Bror was sent on ahead to set things up with Karen following thereafter. When she arrived in Nairobi, she was met by Farah (Bowens), an even-tempered member of the Kikuyu tribe who would become her personal servant. Farah escorted Karen to her new home. She is surprised to discover that Bror had purchased a coffee plantation rather than the dairy farm they’d agreed upon. This irks Karen mainly because it was her money he had used to do it.

Neither Bror nor Karen knew much about the coffee farming business and quite frankly the land they had chosen wasn’t really conducive to growing the plant but with the help of their plant overseer Belknap (Rimmer) they manage to at least make a go of it. However, Bror isn’t really interested in being a plantation owner; he is more interested in big game hunting and womanizing, which leads to Karen contracting syphilis which at the time was incredibly dangerous. She is forced to return to Denmark and undergo a painful and debilitating treatment which ends up with her being unable to have children.

She returns to Africa where she meets Denys Finch Hatton (Redford) and his friend Berkeley (Kitchen). She regales them with stories and they provide her with some company during Bror’s absences which aren’t all due strictly to big game hunting. At last she asks him to move out when it becomes clear that his philandering isn’t going to stop. In the meantime she has developed feelings for Hatton which lead them to move in together and become lovers.

However, Denys proves to be as untamable and elusive as Africa herself and the coffee plantation, never a money-making proposition, is on the verge of bankruptcy. A good harvest could save it, but in order to make a relationship with Denys work Karen will have to give up much of what is important to her. Can she make both the plantation and her relationship work?

I have always considered this the last great Hollywood epic. Sure, there have been other movies with the same sheer scope and grandeur as this one, but these days it’s achieved with CGI and other digital trickery. Out of Africa is a bit of a throwback to movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Gone With the Wind in that the size is achieved by set design and a lush backdrop.

The cinematography here is nothing less than spectacular. Vistas of veldt and plain, meadow and mountain show the beauty that is the Dark Continent. Lions and other wild animals inhabit this world much more comfortably than man. Set designer Stephen Grimes took a year to build a replica of early 20th century Nairobi and of Blixen’s home (not far from where it actually stood) and the look and feel is authentic.

Streep’s performance was virtually flawless. She captures the essence of Blixen – who would become better known as author Isak Dinieson – as a strong woman used to bending to the men in her life, which was not unusual for women of the time. She is determined and at times stubborn but at the same time she is lonely and wistful. She is not above dropping to her knees and begging when the occasion calls for it. She was by all accounts an amazing woman and Streep brings those qualities to life. There is a scene late in the movie where Bror informs Karen of the death of someone she loved very much. She says nothing for a moment but brings a cigarette in shaking hand to her lips to smoke. Everything is in her eyes and in the movement of a single hand but the gesture alone tells you everything you need to know. It’s as amazing a piece of acting as I have ever witnessed.

Redford once again proves himself a charismatic movie star. Although Finch Hatton was in fact British, Redford plays him as an American and almost as a cowboy in a lot of ways. Self-reliant to a fault, Denys values his freedom above all else and that makes a relationship with someone who values commitment very difficult. The two don’t seem to be a good pairing but the chemistry is undeniable and when you have two great actors in roles like this, magic is bound to happen – and it did.

Brandauer, better known in Europe, plays Bror with a playful twinkle. Even though he is a bastard at times, Brandauer is so likable we can’t help but see why Karen was so affectionate towards him even after everything he did. It’s a terrific performance and it is a shame that Brandauer hasn’t done a lot of American movies since. There are many that would have benefited from his participation.

This is a classic movie that stands the test of time. While Streep’s curls are more reminiscent of the 80s than the early 20th century, still this looks like a Hollywood film that could have come from the 50s and 60s just as easily. It is a great romance and a great adventure rolled up into one and represents the best of what Hollywood was and still can be. This is the type of film that you can get nostalgic for – and should.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the last great epic films. Outstanding performances by Streep, Redford and Brandauer. Gorgeous cinematography and score.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too feminine-oriented for those who like a little more testosterone in their films.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sensuality as well as some light violence and mature themes. There are also a few choice words scattered here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep was originally not considered for the role because she wasn’t “sexy” enough. She showed up at the audition wearing a low-cut blouse and a push-up bra and won the part. Streep would study recordings of the actual Karen Blixen reading her own works in order to get the accent and rhythms of Karen’s speaking voice down.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a documentary about Karen Blixen and her time in Africa. There is a collector’s series Blu-Ray with a “digibook” that contains behind-the-scenes photos, script excerpts and personal letters which is fairly expensive.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $128.54M on an unreported production budget; given the adjustment for inflation, I’d bet this was a blockbuster in its time.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dr. Zhivago

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Matchstick Men

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White Material


White Material

Isabelle Huppert realizes she isn’t in Provence anymore.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach de Bankole, William Nadylam, Adele Ado, Ali Barkai, Daniel Tchangang, Michel Subor, Jean-Marie Ahanda, Martin Poulibe, Patrice Eya, Serge Mong. Directed by Claire Denis

 

Have you ever been in love with someone that didn’t love you back nearly as much? Maybe even disliked you or hated you? I think we’ve all been in situations like that, but then again what happens when that love is for a place?

Maria Vial (Huppert) runs a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country (although it was filmed in Cameroon). She doesn’t actually own it – her ex-father-in-law Henri (Subor) actually does, but he is infirm and although she is divorced from his son Andre (Lambert), Maria actually runs the place with Henri’s blessing. Maria and Andre are on pretty good terms, although their teenage son Manuel (Duvauchelle) drives them both a little crazy as teenagers will. He seems content to do nothing but sit in his room; Maria wants him to participate more in the running of the plantation while Andre just hopes he find some sort of direction in life.

Their idyllic lifestyle however is coming to an end. The country is being torn apart by civil war and rebels roam the countryside, many of them children, wishing to wipe every vestige of colonialism from their land. Maria’s workers are getting out while the getting is good and they urge her to do the same. So does Andre. So do French soldiers who approach via helicopter to tell her that they can’t protect her if she stays.

Maria, however, isn’t about to leave. She feels the same love for the land as any African, she reasons, and that makes this just as much her land as theirs. Determined to bring in the harvest that will save her struggling plantation, she goes into town to hire new workers, which she is partially successful in doing. However, she can’t help but notice the suspicion with which she is regarded.

Her son, in the meantime, has an experience that changes him forever and not for the better. Maria also discovers the Boxer (de Bankole), the leader of the rebellion, seriously wounded and puts him up on her land in an outbuilding so he can recover. This might end up protecting her – or getting her caught in the crossfire.

Denis has a history living in French Colonial Africa and obviously her experiences have resonated with her. She has a real feeling for the country and its people, but she sees them without rose-colored glasses. Both the colonials and the Africans in most of her films (several of which have to do with colonialism and its effects) are flawed both philosophically and as people, but she clearly has affection for all of them.

I love San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Mick LaSalle’s assessment about Huppert – “anyone who has seen Huppert in other films may well expect her to be able to beat down the revolution by glaring at it.” Huppert is one of the most intense actresses living on the planet and manages to channel that intensity without being overt or over-the-top about it, a mistake young actresses often make. She is like a coiled spring who communicates her intensity with a glance, or a gesture.

Here she’s slightly more vulnerable than her screen personal usually is, although that fierceness is still there in her stubborn refusal to acknowledge the growing storm that approaches. However, there are several shots that Denis frames Ms. Huppert in that show her almost as schoolgirl-small, alone in a beautiful but hostile environment. In one scene, she needs to get on a bus but the bus is full. Undeterred, she hangs onto the ladder outside the bus; her muscles ripple with effort as she hangs on, much as she does with her plantation. It’s an extraordinary scene that will remain in your memory.

Lambert, best known for his appearances in the Highlander films (as well as occasional cameos in the TV series), displays some hitherto unsuspected tenderness as Andre. He’s not nearly the primal force that his wife is, but Andre is a good man nevertheless and at last when things hit the fan, he has to do the sensible thing. It’s not the wrenching moment it could have been but then, this isn’t Andre’s story either.

The cinematography here is brilliant. Yves Cape, the cinematographer, knows how to frame a shot properly but this isn’t just rote point the camera and take pretty pictures. Each shot is a story and embellishes the story, often giving hints as to what the story is about such as the shot of Maria hanging on the bus we discussed earlier. There are also a lot of interesting faces in the film. While Cape is good at what he does, one has to give at least partial credit to Denis, who has a very specific vision. The things I’ve just referred to are standard in her films.

The film bounces around in various time frames, from the denouement which is teased in the opening scene and to better times and to the beginning of the troubles and back again. This kind of storytelling requires a lot of discipline to keep from confusing the audience, but it didn’t quite work for me.

I’ll admit that I’m pretty impressed with the movie overall, although I downgraded it several points for the flashbacks/flash forwards. Huppert is one of the most brilliant actresses there is who hasn’t gotten sufficient due here in the States. I don’t think Americans are comfortable with a woman who displays this kind of intensity, if you ask me. White Material may not resonate with Americans quite so much as we don’t wrestle with the same colonial issues that Europeans do, at least not to the same extent (we have our own demons that are often on display in our movies). Still, this is one of those hidden gems that any serious film lover should go out of their way to seek out.

WHY RENT THIS: Huppert gives a riveting performance. Beautiful cinematography. Some very symbolic shots will have you working this one over in your head for weeks.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The flashback storytelling method left me cold.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes are pretty adult. There is also some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie that Denis filmed in Cameroon, the first being Chocolat.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Released on DVD as a Criterion Edition, there is an illustrated booklet, There is also a featurette on Denis’ return to Cameroon at the local film festival to screen the move for locals but also for those who worked on the film, many of whom who had never seen it which proved to be a daunting task as Cameroon has nary a single movie theater.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $304, 020 in the U.S. on an unreported production budget; the movie in all likelihood was profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nowhere in Africa

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Prometheus