Picks and Pans Review: Out of Africa

updated 01/06/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/06/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Every year at this time (deadline for the Oscar nominations) critics and the public look for a film to champion—one that makes it respectable to go to the movies again. Something with the lofty, literary patina of a Gandhi or A Passage to India works best, no matter how tedious or timid at the core. This year Out of Africa is the pearl before which we swine are meant to grovel. The cast, headed by Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, not to mention top director Sydney (Tootsie) Pollack and the $30 million budget, commands attention. And the subject matter oozes integrity. This is the tale of Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen was her nom de plume), a Danish aristocrat who ran a coffee plantation in Kenya from 1914 to 1931. Nothing remarkable there except that when Blixen returned to Denmark she wrote a magical memoir called Out of Africa. Dinesen's rarefied prose resisted film adaptation until screenwriter Kurt (Absence of Malice) Luedtke availed himself of Judith Thurman's excellent 1982 biography of Dinesen. That book told of the writer's 1914 marriage of convenience to Bror Blixen, a philandering Swedish baron from whom she contracted syphilis, and her doomed love affair with the dashing British hunter and aviator Denys Finch-Hatton. Impressed? Don't be. Luedtke and Pollack bought these high-priced literary sources only to chuck them for a conventional, largely fictionalized movie romance. Streep, adding Danish to her growing list of accents (does anyone remember what she really sounds like?), makes a game, sharp-witted Dinesen. But the script gives her little chance to relate to the plantation, her African servants or the proud Kikuyu tribe Dinesen described with such yearning. Instead, Streep spends most of the film's 155 minutes going ga-ga over Redford, who is crushingly miscast as Finch-Hatton. Since Redford does not use an English accent or do anything to suggest the Oxford-educated, poetry-spouting son of an earl that was Finch-Hatton, the filmmakers have thrown out every reference to the man's background. So Dinesen's grand passion is no longer for someone who shared her ardor for words that distilled the essence of a continent. Now it seems directed at an aging American pretty boy who strikes movie star poses and takes her flying but won't marry her. Worse, when her lover dies in a plane crash, Streep's Dinesen must deliver a tearjerking graveside eulogy. Such misdirection diminishes Dinesen and devitalizes the film. The subject of the Streep-Red-ford sexual chemistry is difficult to discuss because to this eye none is discernible. Streep gets more going with the devilish Blixen, expertly played by Klaus Maria Brandauer, who provides the only vulgar life in the film. Call Out of Africa a gorgeously photographed view of Dinesen's lost world. But don't call it art. Those who do should be thrown to the lions on which Pollack is so fond of training his cameras. (PG)

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