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Out of Africa.


The late Isak Dinesen's largely allegoricalfiction, set in the haze of a mythological past and brimming with magical portent, suggests that its author barricaded herself from the world and chose to live only in the precincts of her imagination.

Nothing could be further from thetruth. A member of the Danish upper classes, the Baroness Karen Blixen had traveled through worlds both literary and artistic before her wanderlust brought her to a marriage of convenience and a huge coffee plantation in Kenya. She farmed it with little success for 15 years, hosted the Price of Wales, contracted a lifetime case of syphilis from her husband, got a divorce, fell in love with a classic British adventurer, returned to Denmark, and (under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen) became a famous writer.

Wracked with painfrom the syphilis, she nonetheless kept writing and became the spiritual mother of an entire school of Danish intellectuals. She came to know virtually everyone of importance in the world. And when she died at the age of 77 in 1962, she was one of the world's most compelling, successful, and instantly recognizable figures.

She led one of the great lives of the20th century, and that she chose to make relatively little of it in her own work makes her beautifully composed, somewhat bloodless prose something of a disappointment. For example, her memoir Out of Africa is certainly an amazing piece of work. But if you read Out of Africa after completing Judith Thurman's exemplary biography, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, you are bound to feel a bit short-changed, as though Dinesen had removed much of the drama from her experience in Kenya to focus instead on her seemingly random observations of life in the wild.

There has been much talk duringthe past two decades about a film based on Out of Africa, but this quintessentially literary work resisted any efforts to translate it to celluloid. Not until Thurman's book appeared in 1982 could narrative shape be given to the story. And Sydney Pollack's film version of Out of Africa, featuring Meryl Streep in yet another unforgettable performance, as Karen, does justice to this extraordinary woman in a way she was surprisingly incapable of herself.

This film is not biographical in theusual sense; much of it is fictionalized and many of the real-life characters populating Out of Africa are nowhere in evidence. But if the subject of Dinesen's Out of Africa was Africa itself, the subject of Pollack's Out of Africa is what the experience of living in Africa meant to Karen Blixen. And as such, it is always true to its subject and in some ways truer to her experience in Africa than she herself was in her book.

We see her first at a desk in Denmarkafter her return, as the famous opening sentence of the book comes to her: "I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills." With a subtlety typical of the film as a whole, Pollack and the screenwriter, Kurt Luedtke, make it clear that the memories we are about to share with her will in some ways lessen the sense of loss that resonates in Streep's voice (and on the printed page) as she recites that sentence.

What follows is a vivid,leisurely retelling of her experience, beginning with her impetuous proposal of marriage to Baron Bror Blixen, the brother of her first great love, and her arrival in Africa in 1913. The fatally charming Bror (played by the Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer) and most of the other Europeans populating Kenya are not looking for a living or for money. They are searching for extremes, suffused with a kind of mad passion for danger and freedom.

Outside their homes inKenya, lions run free and Masai warriors lie in wait. The birds Bror and Karen shot at during the sedate Danish hunting party at which she proposed to him are not the kind of game he wants. He hungers for the exhilarating danger of the safari.

Karen is also looking for freedom--freedomfrom her stifling Victorian family--but she is quite conventional as well. Her family has put up a great deal of money for the farm, and she intends to make a success of it. She is in for a rude awakening: Upon her arrival she discovers that Bror has decided to go for coffee instead of cattle and learns that coffee has never been successfully farmed at so high an altitude. "I don't want to live around cows," he tells her.

But the truth is that he doesn'twant to live around a farm at all. The hunt is in Bror's blood, and he is ever taking off for a safari. Karen must go it alone, surrounded by the china, crystal, cuckoo clocks, and various homely appurtenances more appropriate for a European manse than a Kenyan coffee plantation.

But gradually the intoxicationsof the wild begin to affect Karen as well. When Bror is off in the British army, fighting the Germans on the African front in World War I, Karen is asked to send some provisions to him through the treacherous countryside. She decides to deliver them herself, aided only by a few native Kikuyu. The journey features Masai warriors, charging lions, and blistering heat. And when at last she arrives at the camp, all the soldiers gawking at the appearance of this woman, she has become a native of Africa.

On this journey she first comesinto extended contact with the great hunter Denys Finch-Hatton (Robert Redford), and their love affair takes up most of the film's second half. Like Bror, Denys is a European transfixed by the freedom Africa offers--"We're just passing through," he says--and his very bohemian view of his relationship with Karen is agonizing to her. He comes and goes as he pleases, a resolutely unreliable partner.

Their deliriously romanticliaison is rather like Karen's entire relationship with Africa itself: It brings meaning and value to her life, but she can never be in possession of it. But she can experience its great beauty.

In the film's most transfixingscene, Denys takes her flying for the first time. In the book, she describes it thus:

In the air you are taken into the fullfreedom of the three dimensions; after long ages of exile and dreams the homesick heart throws itself into the arms of space....Every time that I have gone up in an aeroplane and looking down have realized that I was free of the ground, I have had the consciousness of a great new discovery. "I see," I have thought, "this was the idea. And now I understand everything."

The movie shows them flying overgorges and caverns and waterfalls, and above a great lake where hundreds of flamingos cover the surface. The transporting beauty of the sight causes Karen to give her hand to Denys. He takes it and squeezes it, and the moment is captured forever in time.

The glory of life, Out of Africatells us, is in moments like these. And the glory of the movie itself is that it captures the magical quality of these moments: the luckless-at-love Karen advising a lively young woman about what love really is; Karen and Denys sitting at a makeshift table in the clearing of a campsite, eating a good dinner, drinking a bottle of fine wine, and falling in love; Karen acting Scheherazade and constructing elaborate stores for Denys and his fellow hunter, Berkeley Cole; Karen saying good-by to her faithful servant, Farah, after 15 years by asking him to call her by her first name.

Though Karen does suffer manyhardships, though she comes to write a book pregnant with loss, these experiences will be with her always. And the message is at the core of the film version of Out of Africa, which has the courage to tell a story more faithful to the real-life experience of Isak Dinesen than Isak Dinesen's own version.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Podhertz, John
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Apr 1, 1986
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