Cast: Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Klaus Maria Brandauer
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director (Sydney Pollack), Best Art Direction (Stephen Grimes, Josie MacAvin), Best Cinematography (David Watkin), Best Adapted Screenplay (Kurt Luedtke), Best Original Score (John Barry), Best Sound (Chris Jenkins, Gary Alexander, Larry Stensvold, Peter Handford)
Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Supporting Actor (Klaus Maria Brandauer), Best Costume Design (Milena Canonero), Best Film Editing (Fredric Steinkamp, William Steinkamp, Pembroke Herring, Sheldon Kahn)
SUMMARY: After being spurned by her lover in Denmark, Karen Dinesen (Meryl Streep) arranges to marry her friend (and the lover’s brother) Baron Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) in 1913. The marriage is one of convenience for both: Karen in wealthy, but in danger of becoming a spinster, and Bror has a title but no money. The two decide to use Karen’s money to move to British East Africa (Kenya) and start a dairy farm. Bror goes first, and when Karen arrives they are immediately married in a short ceremony. However, the marriage does not start out well as Bror has decided — without notifying Karen, even though it is her money — to start a coffee plantation, rather than a dairy farm. He also leaves almost immediately after the wedding on an extended hunting trip, leaving Karen to sort out the particulars of the farm. She does meet and become friendly with other Europeans in the area, and with American Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford), a big-game hunter. Even though Karen married Bror out of convenience, she finds that she is developing feelings for him, and is distressed that he spends so much time away from home. On at least one occasion, she makes a point of seeking him out in the middle of his hunting trip (and later, during his military service in WWI). Bror seems to also develop feelings for her, but Karen learns that he has had multiple affairs in a harsh way: she gets syphilis. The doctor sends her home to Denmark with a prescription of Salvarsan, a new drug that contains arsenic, to recuperate.
Karen does eventually recover, but the Salvarsan and syphilis prevents her from ever having children, which crushes her. She returns to Africa and the farm, which Bror has tended in her absence; he then returns to his wandering (and womanizing) ways. Karen decides that she cannot stand this anymore, and asks Bror to move out of the plantation house. She then takes full charge of the house and the plantation, and keeps her mind occupied by doing physical labor along with the African tribe hired to work the plantation. Many of the Europeans in the area look down on the Africans, but Karen befriends them and cares about them. In an effort to help them, she builds a school to teach the children to read and write. She also always carries sweets, and allows the children to run up and reach into her pockets any time she is outside. Despite the hard work of the tribe, and Karen, the coffee plantation gets off to a rough start, and Karen has to take out a bank loan. During this time, Denys starts to appear around the house more often, often dropping by for dinner or to bring Karen a present, like a phonograph. Eventually the two begin a relationship, and Karen invites Denys to live in her house when he is not away for work. For some time they enjoy an idyllic relationship, but eventually Karen starts to long for a more traditional setup, including marriage. Denys refuses to do this, as he sees it as giving up his freedom. He also sees no harm in taking a (platonic) woman friend along on one of his safaris, even though Karen objects to it. When he refuses to give in, she asks him to move out. She continues to work on the farm, which finally yields a profit. Unfortunately, a fire breaks out in the shed that houses all the harvested and processed crop, as well as all the machinery, and destroys everything. Karen is unable to pay the bank, which then seizes the farm. She decides to go back to Denmark, and sells all of her belongings before leaving. Denys returns, and volunteers to take her to the train in his biplane in a few days. He never shows up, and soon Bror comes to the house to tell her that Denys’s plane crashed, and that he was killed. He is buried in Africa, and Karen speaks at the funeral before heading home. She eventually published several books about her experiences, but never returned to Africa.
MY TAKE: I KNEW he was going to die. I got this funny Horse Whisperer, English Patient sense, like it was some doomed romance: they couldn’t be together, but they couldn’t just leave each other, either. That would leave too much unresolved and up in the air. This movie seems to be regarded as either really good or really bad, and I can see both sides. The arguments for: obviously, the scenery is incredible, and there are a ton of gorgeous aerial shots of wide open African plains, and of the native animals. Meryl Streep is terrific, and does perhaps one of her three most famous accents (the others being her Polish-accented English (and German, for that matter) in Sophie’s Choice, and Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady — the performances responsible for two of her three Oscars) as the Danish Baroness Blixen. The usual criticism of this movie is that it’s very slow, and this is true. It’s almost three hours long, and there are long stretches without dialogue. Oddly enough, this didn’t bother me that much — which is strange, because slow action is one of my frequent criticisms. I think it’s because of the beautiful landscape — even when nothing is happening, you’re looking at something incredible — and because it gave the sense of the passing of time, and of a slower pace of life. I’ve actually visited Denmark, and that was one of the biggest things I noticed: things were not so rushed. When I read some background about the movie, I learned that the pace of the movie was deliberate, because Blixen had written about how things moved more slowly in Africa. I think my biggest criticism is actually the love story between Karen and Denys, which I didn’t find overly convincing. There does not seem to be a tremendous amount of chemistry between them, and the fact that Karen is so obviously lonely does not help this. She seemed almost as equally attracted to Bror to me.
RATING: Good; terrific scenery.