Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!).
This month, we’re embarking on a Meryl marathon!
Midway through 1985′s Best Picture winner Out of Africa, roguish hunter Denys Hatton (Robert Redford) reads a poem to his lover, Baroness Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep), making a point to leave out “the dull parts.” If only director Sydney Pollack and screenwriter Kurt Luedtke had heeded the same advice when making this film. Then again, there wouldn’t have been much left if they did.
With all due respect to the late Pollack, Out of Africa is further proof of everything wrong with the Academy Awards (particularly during the 1980s); where beautiful, bloated, self-important tales are considered ‘Best’ just because they declare themselves so. Consider these other – unrewarded – 1985 releases: After Hours, Ran, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Back to the Future. Hell, I would have rather seen Fletch take out the top prize than this overwrought romance.
Streep stars as the real-life Danish ex-pat who wound up running a coffee plantation in Africa when her philandering husband Bror (Golden Globe victor Klaus Maria Brandaeur) proved incapable of the job. The experience offered her the opportunity to don a new accent, and she received an Oscar nomination for her troubles. She’s good. She always is. But not even the meticulous Meryl can breathe life into a movie that never really gets started, and takes almost an hour to end.
The affair between and Karen and the untameable Denys burns with the fire of a thousand wet matches (Redford is 13 years Streep’s senior, mind). When he rails against her for trying to “own” him, it doesn’t necessarily feel as if one of the great love stories of all time is coming to an end; rather, that he’s bailing from the sinking ship of eternal tedium.
Out of Africa is indeed gorgeous to behold and cinematographer David Watkin certainly earned his numerous accolades, particularly in the picture’s lone great sequence, in which Karen and Denys face off against a pair of incoming lions. There has to be something more though; something beyond stunningly captured looks of longing, ponderous pacing, half-baked comparisons between the wild plains of Africa and a wanderer who doesn’t want to be tied to down, as well as an almost complete disregard for the nation’s inhabitants. Out of Africa is like The African Queen minus the action, comedy, convincing chemistry, and the sense of it being a true classic. Sometimes the badge of a ‘Best Picture’ can act as a warning.
Next week: Jess meets The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
Out of Africa is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and via Quickflix streaming.