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A song of Africa; and: What price freedom?
on 2 June 2005
He likes to distill his movies' themes into a single word, Sydney Pollack explains on "Out of Africa"'s DVD. Here, that word is "Possession:" The possessiveness of the colonialists trying to make Africa theirs; to rule her with their law, settle on the local tribes' land, dress their African servants in European outfits (complete with a house boy's white gloves), import prized belongings like crystal to maintain the comforts of European civilization, and teach African children to read, to remove their "ignorance." And the possessiveness of human relationships; the claim of exclusivity arising from a wedding license, the encroachment on personal freedom resulting if such a claim is raised by even one partner - regardless whether based on a legal document - and the implications of desire, jealousy, want and need.
As such, the movie's story of Danish writer Karen Blixen's (Isak Dinesen's) experience in Kenya is inextricably intertwined with her love for free-spirited hunter/adventurer Denys Finch Hatton. Just as she spends years trying to wrangle coffee beans from ground patently unfit for their plantation and create a dam where water that, her servants tell her, "lives in Mombassa" needs to flow freely, only to see her efforts fail at last, so also her romance with Finch Hatton blossoms only as long as she is still (pro forma) married, and thus cannot fully claim him. As soon as the basis of their relationship changes, Finch Hatton withdraws - and is killed in a plane crash shortly thereafter, his death thus cementing a development already underway with terrible finality. In her eulogy Karen asks God to take back his soul with its freedom intact: "He was not ours - he was not mine." Yet, both Kenya and Finch Hatton leave such a mark on her that, forced to return to Denmark, she literally writes them back into her life; again becoming the "mental traveler" she had been before first setting foot on African soil, using her exceptional storytelling powers to resurrect the world and the man she lost, and be united with them in spirit where a more tenable union is no longer possible.
While "Out of Africa" is an adaptation of Blixen's like-named ode to Kenya, several of her other works also informed the screenplay; as did Judith Thurman's Blixen biography. And it's this combination which in screenwriter Carl Luedtke' and director Sydney Pollack's hands turns into gold where prior attempts have failed; because Blixen's book is primarily, as Pollack explains, "a pastorale, a beautifully formed memoir [relying] on her prose style, her sense of poetry and her ability to discover large truths in very small ... details" but lacking "much narrative drive" and thus, "difficult to translate to film." In addition, Blixen was largely silent about her relationship with Finch Hatton, which however was an essential element of the story, thus dooming any attempt to produce a movie without extensive prior research into this area.
Meryl Streep was not Sydney Pollack's first choice for the role of Karen, for which luminaries including Greta Garbo and Audrey Hepburn had previously been considered. Looking back in the DVD's documentary, Streep and Pollack recount how his change of mind came about (and ladies, I just know her version will make you laugh out loud). But while unfortunately neither her Oscar- nor her Golden-Globe-nomination turned into one of the movie's multiple awards (on Oscar night alone, Best Movie, Best Director and Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Music and Sound), she was indeed the perfect choice. Few contemporary actresses have her range of talent and sensitivity; and listening to tapes of Blixen reading her own works allowed her not only to develop a Danish accent but to become the story's narrative voice in the completest sense, from Blixen's persona to her perceptions and penmanship.
Much has been made of the fact that as Finch Hatton no British actor was cast but Robert Redford, with whom Pollack had previously collaborated in five successful movies, including the mid-1970s' "The Way We Were" and "Three Days of the Condor." But as Pollack points out, Finch Hatton, although a real enough person in Karen Blixen's life, in the movie's context stands for the universal type of the charming, ever-unpossessable, mysterious male; and there simply is no living actor whose image matches that type as closely as Redford's. Indeed, in this respect his character in "Out of Africa" epitomizes his "Redfordness" more intensely than *any* of his other roles. Moreover, all references to Finch Hatton's nationality are deleted here; so this isn't Robert Redford trying to portray a member of the English upper class, this is Redford portraying Redford (or at least, his public image) - and therefore, it is only proper that he didn't adopt a British accent, either.
Praise for this movie wouldn't be complete without mentioning the splendid, Golden-Globe-winning performance of Klaus-Maria Brandauer, one of today's best German-speaking actors, in the role of Karen's philandering husband Bror. (And if you think he's duplicitous here, rent such gems as "Mephisto" and "Hanussen" - or, for that matter, "James Bond: Never Say Never Again" - and you'll see what creepy and demonic really is when it's grown up). And of course, "Out of Africa" wouldn't be what it is without its superb African cast members; particularly Malick Bowens as Karen's faithful major domus Farah and Joseph Thiaka in his only known screen appearance as Kamante, Karen's indomitable cook. Several fine British actors complete the cast, providing enough British colonial feel even for those quibbling with Redford's casting; to name but a few, Michael Kitchen as Finch Hatton's friend Berkeley Cole, Michael Gough as Lord "Dee" Delamere and Suzanna Hamilton as Felicity (whose character is based on Blixen's friend and rival for Finch Hatton's attentions, Beryl Markham).
In all, "Out of Africa" is a grand, lavishly produced tribute to Africa, nature, freedom, adventure and love: Karen Blixen's "Song of Africa" brought to the big screen - and one of the profoundest love stories ever written by life itself.