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MOVIE REVIEWS : TWO WOMEN OF SUBSTANCE IN UNLIKELY SETTINGS : ‘Out of Africa’

<i> Times Film Critic</i>

We are starving just now for civilized films, for the play of intelligent minds in movies about something. In that frame of mind, “Out of Africa"--with its intense civility, its irreproachable landscapes, the tensions of its faintly doomed love story, which is not about love, really, but about possession, and its twin superstars--seems to be just the thing for famished culture mavens at Christmastime.

Unfortunately, and through no fault of Meryl Streep, there doesn’t seem to be enough electricity generated out there in Africa to power a love story 2 1/2 hours long.

(“Out of Africa” opens today at the Cinerama Dome and the Avco Center Cinema in Westwood today, and at selected theaters on Friday.)

Sydney Pollack’s lush production takes us to unspoiled Kenya in 1914 with the aristocratic Karen Dinesen (Meryl Streep), a Dane, a storyteller of the first order, and enough of a snob to marry for a title. Actually, her marriage there in Nairobi only hours after she has arrived is not to the man she loves--who spurned her--but to his twin, Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer, full of quicksilver charm, and who, if you look quickly, plays both brothers.)

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It’s an amiable trade-off, the Dinesen family money for the Blixen baronage. (Isak was Karen Blixen’s nom de plume.) Each knows just what the other wants from the marriage, although when Bror protests that the family money bought the title, but not him, Kurt Luedtke’s tart script has Karen riposte by ordering her servant to “Fetch some wine for my lover’s brother.”

Clearly, this is not going to be an evening with the Bickersons. Luedtke has been equally deft in sketching in the ineffable homesickness of these Brits abroad, as one of them feasts on Karen’s perfume, thinking for a moment it’s one he remembers rather well. Ah. No. Very nice, but not the same.

With enviable vitality, Karen sets about to establish a coffee plantation, a job her husband decides he is eminently ill-suited for. His talents lie more toward womanizing and the hunt. (And later there is the matter of his most vile gift to her, from which she never really recovered.)

For her part, Karen occasionally entertains a pair of Englishmen, the delightful Berkeley (Michael Kitchen) and the elusive Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford). There is one magical evening when Finch Hatton demands a story and Karen begins to unreel one magically, until candles gutter in their holders and the three repair to the fireplace for the end of it all.

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But if we are in a well-defined, faintly magical, perfectly appointed past (and Stephen Grimes’s production design, Milena Canonero’s costumes and David Watkin’s photography make it just that), where a level of intelligence is prized, then where’s the problem? Particularly in this benighted year for movies.

It comes from casting and from a sense of place. Streep may convince us utterly that she is in love with Africa, but our views of it are a little too stately to really feel the place. (There is never the immediacy of the Malabar Caves, for example, in “A Passage to India.”) Consequently, we are stirred the way a really well-presented travel film stirs us, enough to inquire about group rates but not passionately.

The real cipher, strangely enough, is Redford’s performance. Finch Hatton, part great White Hunter, part Oxford don and elusive as that demned Pimpernel, was the most English of Englishmen. Quite correctly, Luedtke has given his speeches the cadences and rhythm of British speech, which Redford doesn’t even attempt. (Querulously, one thinks that Streep has in the past mastered a Polish accent with many layers of coloring, an English accent and here a Danish accent. Wouldn’t you think that perhaps . . . . ?)

But beyond accents is the matter of how much Redford wishes to give to the role. Frankly, he was more impassioned for director Pollack 12 years ago in “The Way We Were,” or actually impassioned in just the same wary manner, and these are two very different men.

Streep can pretty nearly do anything; she can certainly make all the facets of the infinitely complex Baroness Blixen sparkle like crystal, but she cannot provide all the heat in a love affair and, regrettably, that’s what she is left to do.

There is also the nature of their romance, on too rareified a plain for the rest of us. On his drop-in visits, never announced, Finch-Hatton would not discuss the problems of her plantation, which were immense. “We never spoke of anything that was real or ordinary,” Karen confides. Fine. Fine. Then what did they talk about? Having taken us this far into the ozone between these two, we are at least entitled to a snatch of this unreal, out-of-the-ordinary conversation for our 2 1/2 hours.

Her possessiveness was at the root of their quarrels--and the root of their personal tragedy. Repeated separations took away her very sense of self; she could no more hold back remarking about it than he could help learning to fly. But it’s hard to hear an Englishman in 1931 sidestep marriage by explaining that he “wouldn’t be any closer to her because of a piece of paper.”

Oh well. You could look at Streep. Or the Africans. Kikuyu. Masai. Somali. They’re beautiful. And also far from ordinary. ‘OUT OF AFRICA’

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A Universal Pictures release of a Mirage Enterprises Production. Producer/director Sydney Pollack. Screenplay Kurt Luedtke, based on “Out of Africa” and other writings by Isak Dinesen; “Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller,” by Judith Thurman; “Silence Will Speak” by Errol Trzebinski. Co-producer Terence Clegg. Production design Stephen Grimes. Camera David Watkin. Editors Fredric Steinkamp, William Steinkamp, Pembroke Herring, Sheldon Kahn. Music John Barry. Costumes Milena Canonero. Associate producers Judith Thurman, Anna Cataldi. Executive producer Kim Jorgensen. Sound Peter Handford. With Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Michael Kitchen, Malick Bowens, Michael Gough, Suzanna Hamilton, Rachel Kempson, Graham Crowden, Leslie Phillips, Shane Rimmer.

Running time: 2 hours, 31 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).


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