Out of Africa won seven Academy Awards in 1985, including Best Picture (up against The Color Purple and others). It was nominated for four more Awards that year. Since then, critics disagree about the quality of the film, some claiming the pacing was too slow while others remark about the incredible cinematography and the original score. For me, no other film will ever come close to affecting me as dramatically as Out of Africa.
From the first line of the movie—which is identical to the first line of the book—this film stole my heart and owned me: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills…” It was Meryl Streep’s voice, as Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dineson) in a Danish accent, soft and reflective, that viewers hear first, and when I first heard it, Karen Blixen, Meryl Streep, and Karen Henderson all sort of merged into one female protagonist.
The scenery of Africa is stunning, and much of the cinematography was filmed from the sky as Karen and Denys Finch Hatten (Karen Blixen’s lover played by Robert Redford) flew overhead in Denys’s bi-plane. The musical score adds to the incredible feeling of being there–flying over Africa and seeing for the first time the expanse and the majestic creatures of Africa from the air. Even today, I sometimes listen to the soundtrack and revel in the feeling of endless possibility and limitless potential, the feelings the film conjures for me during those scenes.
It was Karen Blixen (as played by Streep) who really spoke to me, however. An unbelievably independent woman, Blixen endured indignity after indignity because of her gender and her independent spirit, but she never gave up on her dreams, and she rarely even acknowledged the indignities she experienced. One time, only, in the film, she goes before a British magistrate and prostrates herself publically, begging for land where her African workers can go live after she is forced to sell her farm. Everyone else is more embarrassed than she is and she finally wins the promise of the magistrate’s wife to arrange for land for the Africans. This is the first moment in the film (and toward the end) where I have never been able to control my tears. Something about her humbling herself in that way because she loves and cares for her workers always touches me deeply, and from there on throughout the rest of the film, I cry in every scene until the end.
Another moment that speaks to me happens toward the end of the film as Karen prepares to leave Africa. At a hotel with a Gentlemen’s Club, where she had previously been banned because she was a woman, she is invited to join the men for a drink. Taken aback, she graciously joins them for one quick shot of whiskey, whereby all the men stand to honor her. It’s too late, really, but it’s sweet vindication of her as a woman to be reckoned with. Other parts of the film that stand out in my mind include Karen’s relationship with her head servant, Farah, and a waltz she shares with Denys about midway through the film. The contrast of the gentility of the music, the literature, the food and drink, and the manners, with the ferocity of the country, the animals, nature, and other humans strikes a discordant tone, yet at the same time the contrasts illuminate and validate the qualities of the other.
After I saw the film, I became a devotee of Isak Dineson (Karen Blixen), reading everything I could find about her. I was astonished to learn that we share the same birthday, April 17, and that she died the year I was born. Wanting to know more, I read a biography about her—the title I no longer remember—and I was somewhat disappointed to learn that she was actually a difficult woman quite often, she could be quite contrary, she had high expectations of people around her, and she sometimes had rather grandiose illusions of herself; I was saddened to realize that this woman I idolized was not as perfect as I initially believed. She was a real woman—an incredible, independent, strong, determined, sensual woman—but still real and still flawed. I had thought we had so much in common. Ah, perhaps we do.