Out of Africa was an endangered species when it was released in 1985. In 2016 it is all but extinct. The grand Hollywood romantic epic is a thing of the past, making way for the formulaic weepies from the pen of Nicholas Sparks et al. No more obvious example of this can be found in the introduction of Robert Redford’s character, Denys Finch Hatton – a big game hunter carrying a pair of huge elephant tusks. That is not an image you would expect to see in the portrayal of a romantic leading man nowadays. It is far more likely that they would be sanding a boat, at sunset, with their shirt off.
So yes, this is my way of saying that it is all a bit old fashioned. Very deliberately paced, melodramatic and overly long, Out of Africa is most certainly the last of its kind.
Directed by Sydney Pollack, the film is beautifully made and features some stunning cinematography. His sweeping vistas of the Kenyan landscape are incredible and stir the soul with their beauty, but after a while you just want him to get on with the story.
Which just so happens to be the story of Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep), a wealthy Danish woman who travels to Kenya during the last years of the British Empire for a new life and a marriage of convenience. Unfortunately for her the marriage turns out to be anything but convenient. Her husband Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer) is a philanderer, who disappears for weeks on end to go hunting, while she is left to manage the coffee plantation that he purchased with her money.
Into her life comes the rugged American big game hunter, Denys Finch Hatton (Redford). In real life he was not an American. He was British. An Eton and Oxford educated son of an Earl. An aristocrat who travelled to Africa to hunt animals. Somehow I don’t think that would have been quite as romantic now would it?
Over the course of many years their close friendship develops into a passionate love affair. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, whilst out on safari together, Denys washes Karen’s hair. Her lips parted in sensual awakening as he rinses the soap from her hair. A million shampooing fantasies were born in this moment.
The performances in the film are universally excellent. In perhaps her most iconic performance, Streep shows why she is the greatest screen actress of her generation, delivering a note perfect evocation of Blixen. Redford is also on top form as the man in her life, who like Africa, is too wild to be tamed. Surprisingly though, when it came to Oscar night, the actors were just about the only people who went away empty-handed. The film won seven Academy Awards in total, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Your enjoyment of this film will depend entirely on how much you buy into the central relationship. If you are gripped and enthralled by the romantic liaison of Streep and Redford, then you will find much to love in this old-fashioned epic. If however, you are somewhat less than gripped by what is happening on screen, then the slow pace and extraordinary running time may test your patience to the limit.
This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus