'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
In keeping with many of Universal's 100th Anniversary Collector's Series titles, the remastered edition of 'Out of Africa' comes packaged in a handsomely designed digibook. A 50GB Blu-ray disc sits inside the front cover, and a standard-def DVD is tucked inside the back. In between is a 48-page volume containing a wealth of beautiful full-color photos; reproductions of the U.S., East German, and Polish posters; excerpts from the shooting script; an introduction by film historian Leonard Maltin; character sketches of the real-life figures the actors portray; mini biographies of Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen, Redford, Streep, composer John Barry, and director Sydney Pollack; and bits of trivia. This is a classy offering from Universal that really dresses up this remastered release.
Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. When the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
What a difference two years - and a complete remaster from "high resolution 35mm original film elements" - can make! This is how 'Out of Africa' should have looked on Blu-ray in the first place! Breathtakingly crisp, gorgeously lush, and bursting with detail, this superior effort at last allows us to fully admire and appreciate David Watkin's Oscar-winning cinematography, as well as the landscapes, wildlife, and culture that so fervently moved and inspired Karen Blixen herself. So toss out, melt down, or pulverize that travesty of a transfer Universal shamelessly hawked in 2010 and revel in this re-do. Night and day doesn't even begin to describe the dazzling difference.
Gone are all the annoying print marks and signs of decay that afflicted the previous video rendition. 'Out of Africa' now looks antiseptically clean, with just a hint of grain providing a warm, cozy film-like feel. If any DNR has been applied, it's been done judiciously so it doesn't detract from the vital textures that blanket the movie. Contrast is perfect and colors sport a newfound vibrancy without ever seeming over-pushed. Vistas flaunt remarkable clarity, with even the remotest background elements maintaining structure and exhibiting telling bits of detail. Depth is more pronounced and articles in Blixen's home and on safari exude a pleasing sharpness that makes the decor come alive. (The film also won an Oscar for art direction/set decoration.) Images are so well rendered, the processed shot of Streep and Brandauer against a snowy Danish backdrop early in the film (which I mistakenly identified as location work in my previous review) looks cheesily fake, but that's a small price to pay for such a stellar restoration.
Colors finally pop like they should, with the verdant hues of the African countryside appearing especially lush. Rugged browns and khakis also show up well, and the costumes in the New Year's party scene possess a lively look. Black levels are rich and deep, and shadow delineation is quite good, with hardly any crush muddying up nocturnal scenes. Fleshtones lean toward the rosy side, but remain generally stable, and close-ups brim with detail, highlighting Streep's understated loveliness and Redford's ruddy features.
Inconsistency and edge enhancement also brought down the previous transfer, but this effort almost entirely corrects such faults. It's tough to fathom how 'Out of Africa' could look any better than it does here, and though this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 remaster isn't perfect, it's such a huge leap forward it merits a double dip for anyone who even remotely admires Pollack's romantic epic.
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.
It took a while, but Universal finally gets 'Out of Africa' right. This stunningly beautiful remastered edition rectifies almost all the myriad problems that plagued the previous Blu-ray release, and injects new life into Sydney Pollack's Oscar-winning romantic epic. The last time I watched 'Out of Africa,' it tried my patience; this time, it all but captivated me, and that's largely due to the revitalized video, which, thanks to impeccable clarity, contrast, and color timing, immerses us in the exotic setting and brings a greater immediacy to the drama. The upgraded digibook packaging also enhances this release, featuring a wealth of lovely photos, an attractive design, and well-written text. The audio and supplements remain identical to those on the previous edition, but that's fine. Fixing the problematic video was the raison d'etre behind this release, and Universal doesn't skimp on quality here. Fans will be delighted with the results, and shouldn't hesitate to double dip. In fact, if ever a film required a double dip, it's 'Out of Africa.'
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.