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DVD Review

DVD cover

Out of Africa (1985)
(2019 Reissue)


Starring: Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Klaus Maria Brandauer
Distributor: Fabulous Films Ltd / Fremantle Media Enterprises
RRP: £9.99
5 030697 035462
Certificate: PG
Release Date: 18 October 2019

Thirty five years ago when this Karen Blixen ode to love and heroism amidst early twentieth century colonial Kenya hit the screens, there was nothing but praise and a quarter of a billion dollar worldwide gross. And Oscars. Seven out of eleven nominations.

And why not? – Sidney Pollack won the Oscar for Best Director and deserved it not just for this but for what he had already done (The Yakuza [1975], Absence of Malice [1984], Tootsie [1985] and would do, stepping in to act when Harvey Keitel walked out of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut [1999]). David Watkin won the Oscar for best cinematography; he had shot the immortal Goldfinger (1964) title sequence, been director of photography for Chariots of Fire (1981) and was known as a pioneer of cinematography. Watkin devised the ‘Wendy Light’, described on IMDb as ‘a lighting rig consisting of a grid of many lights on a gantry suspended in the air, which is now the standard technique for lighting exterior night-time scenes. "Wendy" was the nickname that he was given by the electricians who worked for him.’ John Barry got the golden statuette for best score. Meryl Streep was nominated for best actress but guess what? This is one of umpteenth times she lost – A praiseworthy picture from every angle, right?

A romance set in Kenya wrenching under Anglo-Euro colonial rule. Indigenous populations, disdained for their primitive ‘coloured peoples’ religion, as opposed to that fine Euro work ethic labour master saviour who baptized hegemony into righteous white world order. But even atheists who grew up in Kenya knocking people of colour for their primitive religious ways, like Richard Dawkins did recently, found they could be in bad odour over such flatulent fair skinned ethnocentrism. So, a love story of Tristan und Isolde Go to Afrika was a questionable sell even in 1985. Better have transcendent talent to hawk this one. And they did.

Streep is an independent woman in a male world which trucks no such silliness. Using her money her husband decides to start a coffee plantation without consulting her, tricky in a climate where it’s been heretofore untried. Then he gives her syphilis and she kicks him out and endures a gruelling recovery (arsenic) and returns to make a go of the plantation. She pitches in and works among her field workers, offers reading education to the local tribe and tries to be an enlightened neighbour not an archetypal oppressor.

The man she comes to love, Redford, is respectful of the land and the people. Though he’s a safari guide, he’s fast coming to realize the Africa he loves is being checkerboarded by plantations, sliced and diced by lorry tires. Redford, in effect, is an African Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and this is probably how the actor saw his role.

Pollack, working with a deftly aware script by Kurt Luedtke, consolidating several of Karen Blixen’s biographical novels, collaborating with two of the greatest actors in film (well, one anyway), a consummate cinematographer and a score composer doing the most nuanced work of his career, pulls this story out the cinematic cess pool of fascist colonial wank (Gone With The Wind [1939] and Untamed [1955]) into humanist inspiration.

It is said Streep knew she wasn’t first choice for the role, that her physical attributes weren’t what Pollack wanted, so she wore an uplift bra and low cut dress to the first audition meeting. She knew this was de rigueur for the cover art on every romance novel she had ever seen and that’s what this movie was, wasn’t it?

Casting Redford as the lead love interest brought a haversack of nobility, especially to people who cared about disappearing species or butchering rhinos to grind their horns so men with small proboscises could feel bigger. When Redford and Streep shoot two lions we are comforted when told that these are not endangered African lions but trained lions flown in from America. How they were trained to drop with the gunshots is not explained.

Streep’s acting is what drives the film. I tell young people who want to go into the trade to take the money they would spend on coaching lessons and matriculation and purchase every Streep film on DVD from The Deerhunter (1978) forward and watch them in chronological order. There will be little or no borrowing, spectacular range and believability for each character. This is among the best of her always superb performances.

Fabulous Films doesn’t brag about its remastering but it should. The Watkin look is breath-taking. A few times there are process shots which are even more apparent because of the digital overhaul but I found those scenes charming, like a movie.

Redford early work:

Jeremiah Johnson trailer:

Untamed (1955) Directed by Henry King, starring Susan Hayward (uplift bra role) and Tyrone Power


John Huff

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