'Out of Africa' is the type of large-scale romantic epic that has Oscar written all over it. With colorful characters, exotic locations, period flair, and a sweeping tale of thwarted love, it not only won the hearts and minds of audiences and Academy voters alike, nabbing seven 1985 Oscars, including Best Picture and Director (Sydney Pollack), but also spawned a national African obsession. Almost overnight, The Dark Continent became the new Disneyland, as droves of wealthy, starry-eyed American tourists invaded Africa's unspoiled core to embark on ritzy safaris in the hope of recreating the thrilling experiences of Danish plantation owner Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) and British hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) depicted on screen. The fervor has since diminished, as has the magical aura surrounding Pollack's impressive but strangely sterile film. Twenty-five years after its initial release, 'Out of Africa' still transports us to an unfamiliar land and incisively explores its culture, but now struggles mightily to capture our imagination and evoke an intense emotional response. And without those two key elements, it's hard to classify this Best Picture winner as one of the greats.
In a nutshell, 'Out of Africa' tells the tale of a woman who strives to possess everything, tangible and conceptual, and the man who, despite his love for her, fights tooth and nail to remain free. Based on both the writings of Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen's nom de plume) and the author's own life experiences, the film begins in Karen's native Denmark, where she enters into a marriage of convenience with Baron Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and follows him to Kenya to start a coffee plantation in 1913. Yet physical and emotional isolation – the latter brought on by Bror's serial promiscuity – draw Karen away from her established Danish values and ideals, and into a deep affinity with Africa. The rugged Denys often visits Karen on her lonely estate, and gradually the couple falls in love, sharing a reverence for the native people and untamed splendor of a continent that's being gobbled up with frightening alacrity by a few power-hungry nations. Denys, however, refuses to be tied down, and infuriates the needy Karen with his soliloquies on independence and free love. And just as she futilely strives to possess the land, natives, and spiritual essence of Africa, Karen tries her damnedest to possess Denys, too.
I've always had mixed feelings about 'Out of Africa.' On the one hand, I appreciate its scope and beauty, thoughtful presentation, and the always meticulous work of Meryl Streep. But unlike other epics that grab us in the gut and reel us in, this film remains distant, almost willfully keeping us at arm's length. Sure, repressed emotion is a major part of the story, but to make that repression resonate, we need to feel the ache inside the characters, and that never quite comes through. Still, 'Out of Africa' stands as the undeniable pinnacle of Pollack's career, and the acclaim and recognition he received for it was well deserved. The often stunning visuals immerse us in the location and bring Africa to vibrant life, thanks to the keen eye of Academy Award-winning cinematographer David Watkin, who casts the film in a wide array of shades and textures, capturing both the expanse and detail of a breathtaking wilderness. Sunsets, aerial views, and exquisite interiors radiate with colorful depth and add a lush dressing to the drama.
Yet while it's easy to be carried away by all the poetic majesty on screen, digging one's teeth into the narrative can be difficult. 'Out of Africa' is never really boring, but it's often slow. The meandering plot takes forever to pick up steam and never crescendos to a satisfying emotional pitch. Though some might term the clasping of hands in a soaring biplane or the washing of a loved one's hair on a remote riverbank the apex of interpersonal connection, I found such subtle displays of soulfulness mechanical and trite.
And maybe that's because I've always had a hard time believing the romance between Streep and Redford. I didn't really buy it in 1985, and I don't today, and for a film that bills itself as a passionate love story, that's a big problem. Streep works her tail off – mastering a difficult dialect, exhibiting equal parts spirit, wit, and warmth, and exuding a strength that is admirable but not sanctimonious – but Redford, as he so often does, merely coasts on charm and personality. His passive presence and monotonic line readings give Streep little to play off, and often make him appear rather bored. And while he looks handsome (if a bit weathered) and talks forthrightly about natural preservation (a topic close to his heart in real life), he does not create a character. His Denys is interchangeable with any number of previous and future Redford roles…a fact that might have remained safely hidden were it not for the supreme talent of his Oscar-nominated co-star.
Like an iridescent flame, Streep lights up this film. She breezes onto the screen exuding a natural, reposeful air, and leads us spellbound through the picture's many stages, despite an Oscar-winning screenplay that lacks grit and sacrifices head-to-head conflict for a leisurely (at times, even sluggish) overview of Karen's life. But one person can only generate so much passion and heat, and Redford doesn't supply enough of his own to make this affair credible.
Another thing that really bugs me about Redford's portrayal is his lack of a British accent. I mean, come on, if Streep can sound like a born-and-bred Dane, how difficult could it really have been for Redford to stay true to his character and adopt some British inflections? Both actors play foreign roles, so to have one don an accent and the other speak in his native tongue only magnifies the misstep and lends the entire film an air of artificiality that's difficult to overcome. Denys is not a fictional creation; he's an historical figure, and Redford owed it to himself and the audience to do him justice. And if he couldn't, Pollack should have ordered the screenwriter to simply change his name and nationality, much the way he changed the name of the woman who competed for Denys' affections, Beryl Markham, who's called Felicity in the film. (Markham was still alive at the time the movie was shot, and rights issues forced the alteration.)
Those expecting their souls to be unforgettably stirred just might be disappointed in 'Out of Africa.' Some may be swept away by the story's understated, cerebral romance, but others, like me, may find it all a bit stiff. Yet Pollack's epic is still worth seeing for its accomplished filmmaking, Streep's fine performance, and the real star of this rambling enterprise – Africa herself.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Out of Africa' arrives on a double-sided disc with the Blu-ray version on one side and a standard-def DVD edition on the other. This is a new packaging policy Universal is trying out with some of its catalogue releases, and I think it's a colossally bad idea. Not only does the product seem flimsier and cheaper, but damage is so much easier to inflict on a double-sided disc; mine is already marred with smudges and fingerprints, and I've been careful with it. And who buying a Blu-ray disc really cares about standard DVD anyway? So why bother including it at all? Yes, the DVD does include a couple of negligible bonus features (production notes and cast/crew bios/credits) that have been left off the Blu-ray, but few, if any, people will feel compelled to load up the DVD side for the express purpose of exploring them. I say just leave DVD out of the equation and let Blu-ray stand alone!
When I first heard 'Out of Africa' was coming to Blu-ray, I began imagining how beautiful the landscapes would look in 1080p. Then I remembered the film was 25 years old, and would probably need a decent restoration to meet the new format's lofty standards. So I tempered my expectations, and it's a good thing I did, because Sydney Pollack's film is both a revelation and disappointment in high definition. There are moments of breathtaking splendor to be sure, but also nagging deficiencies that disrupt and derail the viewing experience.
First of all, the master used for this Blu-ray edition seems to be identical to the one on the DVD. Though the 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer is markedly clearer and sharper than the DVD rendering, the same print anomalies remain. Scads of marks and spots, both black and white, litter the image, and though most are faint, they're impossible to ignore. Grain is also a tad too visible, often adopting a noisy quality that results in fuzzy backgrounds and obscured details. In addition, edge enhancement seems to have been liberally applied, at times making the picture look overly processed and artificial. The effect is especially jarring early in the film, when Karen and Bror talk about marriage against a snowy Danish backdrop. The processing is so severe, the two appear to be superimposed in front of a green screen, when in reality the scene was shot outdoors on location.
Colors are generally lush and well saturated, especially the verdant greens of the African landscape, but contrast is spotty, with certain scenes adopting an overly bright, slightly washed out look. Fleshtones, from Streep's pale complexion and Redford's ruddiness to the varying shades of the African natives, err on the red side, but black levels are rich, deep, and true. Textures, however, are muted, yet close-ups are pleasingly crisp, despite the noticeable EE. In the end, though, it's the transfer's inconsistent nature that brings it down. One scene is smooth and lush, the next bleachy and gritty, and the abrupt transitions draw our concentration away from the story. Still, it's impossible not to be impressed by Africa's serene beauty in high definition, and if you can keep your eye from focusing on the negatives, you'll no doubt enjoy the upgraded picture. It certainly beats standard DVD.
The greatest aural asset of 'Out of Africa' is its Academy Award-winning score by John Barry, and though the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track nicely honors the lyrical, romantic theme most of the time, our first exposure to it is, to say the least, harsh. The initial strains that chime in over the opening credits assault the ears with abnormally high volume and a disturbing shrillness – so much so, I had to frantically fumble for the remote to reduce the levels. Yet after that wake-up call, the track settles down well, and Barry's majestic music sounds great for the rest of the film, filling the sound field with warm tones and well-modulated strings.
The rest of the track is serviceable, but not spectacular. Not surprisingly, due to the film's age, surround activity is quite limited, but the buzzards in the bush creep into the rears just enough to provide welcome ambience. Some whip accents are marvelously distinct, too, yet none of the effects ever step on the dialogue's toes, with conversations remaining clear, comprehendible, and well prioritized throughout. Dynamic range is fine, but there's not much bass to test the low end, and some decent stereo separation up front enlivens a couple of scenes. No imperfections, such as hiss or surface noise, mar the track, but the lossless improvements are minimal at best.
A decent selection of extras offer plenty of insight and perspective on the film's principal characters and the process of mounting this epic motion picture.
'Out of Africa' tries hard to work its way into our souls with poetic visuals, a spiritual story, and understated romance. And while this Best Picture winner may captivate and carry away some viewers, others will surely find it stiff, self-conscious, and a little dull. Though I'm a fan of Sydney Pollack and Meryl Streep, I must admit I fall into the latter category, and my affection for the film has certainly waned since my initial viewing a quarter century ago. Universal doesn't help matters by merely upgrading the existing master, which makes for a (literally) spotty transfer that only sporadically does the material justice. Audio is middle-of-the-road, too, and the good slate of extras could have been enhanced with some new material. If you already have the special edition DVD, an upgrade is not essential, but if you're a fan of the film and don't yet own a copy, there are far worse Blu-rays out there than this one. And if you haven't yet seen this Oscar-winning epic, it's definitely worth a look.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.