I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” So begins Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen’s haunting' memoir of her 18 years running a coffee plantation in Kenya. The book itself was written under the pen name of Dinesen by the Baroness Karen Blixen, long after she returned to her native Denmark in 1931. Crafted with extraordinary grace, Out of Africa chronicled her almost mystical relationship with the African landscape and her growing understanding of the natives who worked for her. It also dealt with her friendship with an English adventurer named Denys Finch Hatton. The movie version focuses on that relationship, turning it into a classic Hollywood romance and then miscasting Meryl Streep and Robert Redford as its stars. Despite that, Out of Africa is an intelligent and highly watchable film.
Kurt Luedtke’s screenplay is often laconic, sharp and witty. Wisely, it retains the innocent qualities of Dinesen’s own voice in the narration. Director Sydney Pollack manages to capture
much of the beauty of the African outdoors while he tells her fascinating story. Blixen arrived in Kenya with her Limoges porcelain, Danish wolfhound and cultural naïveté. She had married the Baron Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) for his title; he, in turn, had married her for her money. But the baron soon grew tired of farming and neglected his wife. Blixen nurtured her plantation, ingratiated herself with the Kikuyu tribe that lived on her land and fell in love with Africa.
Still, the lonely Blixen’s friendship with Finch Hatton became a welcome relief. Together, she and the Englishman explored their love of fine wines, Mozart and the art of conversation. But there is no firm evidence in anything that Dinesen wrote that she and Finch Hatton were lovers. Dinesen’s memoirs described their conversations rather than recording them. By contrast, the film’s lengthy dialogues pall, especially when the pair whine about “need” and “want.” Meanwhile, Blixen’s shrewd Somali servant, Farah (Malick Bowens), and other employees get short shrift.
Adapting Out of Africa to the screen
inevitably means focusing on Dinesen/ Blixen herself. As Streep plays her, trying on a variety of accents as though they were hats, the circumspect but warm Dane becomes an ice maiden. And her comic timing is off, often missing Dinesen’s droll perspective on life’s hardships. Only in one moving scene, when she drops to her knees and begs the new British governor for some land on which her Kikuyus can live, does the soul of Dinesen shine through. As Finch Hatton, Redford gives a plausible performance as a man who is masculine yet sensitive, brusque yet sympathetic.
Kenya itself outshines both stars. Cinematographer David Watkin skilfully evokes Dinesen’s Africa: clouds that, as the writer herself put it, are “proud, floating masses” amid the “blue air.” In her book’s last image of Africa a departing Dinesen describes “the outline of a mountain slowly smoothed and levelled out by the hand of distance.” But in the movie version of Out of Africa, that hand of distance is Hollywood, behind which Dinesen’s own landscape sadly recedes.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.