What a surprising movie, dearest fellow travelers! When the film started up, and Meryl Streep started in with yet another perfectly practiced accent telling tales from long-ago days while the camera swept over idyllic African vistas, I rolled my eyes and wondered why I’d let Netflix talk me into this. But it turned out to be an impressive film, a romance that investigates what it means to be a relationship, and a historical drama that doesn’t completely romanticize the rich white people’s experiences and their influence on the native black people.
Karen von Blixen-Finecke lived a pretty amazing life, marrying twice, growing coffee in the highlands of Kenya, building a school for Kikuyu children, writing a famous memoir, and making sweet, sweet love to Robert Redford. Okay, that last part is just what Meryl Streep gets to do in the film adaptation, but it’s based on real events with Karen’s lover Denys Finch Hatton. The movie’s PG, so we don’t see so much as a boob, but the steaminess of the romance is easily conveyed nonetheless.
My favorite part of the romance was how it was allowed to be a little rough-edged. Sure, there were plenty of scenes in which Karen and Denys share tender moments, or gaze deeply into one another’s eyes, but the conflict between the characters was never resolved to either party’s satisfaction. They were deeply in love, but Karen needed him to be home more often, creating a joint life with her on the farm and not jetting off to do safaris for months at a time, and Denys clung to his independence and his ideal of being able to love someone without possessing them or their time. The movie shows just a couple arguments about their differing needs, but they’re well-written and fair to each character. Karen could easily come across as a needy nag, and Denys could easily be a commitment-phobic cad, but we get to see the validity of both their positions, and the pain it causes them to be unable to compromise on their deeply held beliefs.
How often do you get a romance like that in the movies, one that doesn’t work out (not a big spoiler there; when the movie starts with a voiceover telling us that a man “gave the greatest gift” it’s no big leap to surmise that it ain’t gonna last and probably someone dies), but not because of outside forces like other lovers or an inconvenient death? One that doesn’t work out because love isn’t enough to sustain a relationship if other factors don’t line up like shared ideas about how relationships work and how to balance independence with commitment.
The other major part of the movie, of course, is that this is a film set in colonial Kenya, a place ruled by a small group of upper-class British men who hardly considered their African “subjects” as anything more than servants and hunting guides. Now I know that Pollack was a sentimentalist, and there is definitely some unfortunate romanticizing and simplifying going on here, but there’s also a surprising amount of complexity and sensitivity. For example, Nairobi in 1913 was far from a homogeneous place but was rather a multicultural hub, with Somalis, Indians, Kikuyu, and Europeans all interacting, and the movie shows that in tracking shots across the marketplace as well as in the background of many tête-a-têtes between main characters. Also, Karen’s connection to the Kikuyu in her life is genuine, and her interest in improving their lives (treating wounds and illnesses in an informal hospital, securing land for her tenants when her farm fails) is real, and appreciated by the beneficiaries. The fact that she says she must get land for “her” Kikuyu, well, that’s paternalism for ya. (Ugh.)
Denys, unlike most of his fellow white men, admires the native Masai and Kikuyu people for having their own traditions, stories, and lifestyles. He still feels totally entitled to hire a local man to be his servant as he wanders the country shooting all the wildlife, of course, and that is an entitlement the film does not address. His admiration also too often veers into Noble Savage territory, but he still provides a welcome contrast to the boorish paternalism of the other members of the ruling elite in the film.
He also provides a great moment of real moral conflict for the audience to participate in, when he argues with Karen over whether the local children should be educated. Her view is that of course the children should learn how to read, as it will undoubtedly improve their lives and it is unfair to deprive them of it. Hard to argue with, except Denys points out that this will just create little Englishmen out of the children, and since they already have their own culture, do they really need the European one imposed on them? It’s hard to separate out the good of educating people from the harm of doing it by a colonial master’s mandate. Not to mention that it’s not like the Kikuyu children weren’t receiving an education already; it just wasn’t a traditionally European one involving books and schools. And all this swirled about in my head after watching a Hollywood romance! Not bad.
By the end of the (very long) film, I was totally engrossed in the life of this complicated, strong woman and the many people she comes to know and love during her time in Kenya. Apparently, the title for Blixen’s book came from a Latin saying, “Out of Africa, always something new,” and a few inevitable Hollywood clichés aside, this movie delivers on providing a few new ways of portraying love and colonialism on the silver screen.
Also, the cinematography makes me want to visit Kenya, like, yesterday.