If it's a movie about an adventurous European woman who moves to Africa, grows to love it--and to love dashing hunter Denys Finch Hatton as well--and she also writes a book about her experiences, then it must be "Out of Africa," right?
Not anymore. Airing Sunday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS, "Beryl Markham: A Shadow on the Sun" is the story of a woman whose life overlapped that of Karen Blixen (a.k.a. Isak Dinesen) in many ways. But Markham, the first pilot of either sex to fly the Atlantic solo from east to west, was perhaps an even more extraordinary person than the heroine Meryl Streep portrayed in "Out of Africa." Obscure until just four years ago (when her autobiography "West With the Night" was reprinted and PBS first aired a documentary about her), Markham is suddenly a hot property; at least two other theatrical movies about her are in development.
Unfortunately, this new notoriety came too late to benefit the aviator, horse trainer and author--she died in 1986.
"A Shadow on the Sun" stars Stefanie Powers (who also co-produced) and was directed by Tony Richardson ("Tom Jones"). The film, which follows Markham from the time she arrived in Kenya with her parents at age 4 to her death, is skillfully made and acted. Still, it's not quite the Beryl Markham film to end all Beryl Markham films.
Perhaps the film took on too much by telling the "whole" story. Too many of the portions of Markham's life were far less than exciting--especially those dealing with her boring and/or brutal husbands, all four of them. The TV movie does little more during these sections than convey the dullness.
More troubling is the film's frequent, evasive shallowness. Part of the problem may be that "Shadow" is based on interviews with Markham by journalist James Fox ("White Mischief"). Consequently, the script sees her life as filtered through her own remembrances, as told to a Fox-like reporter, and generally we just get one side--hers.
At one point, for example, we see one of her husbands hammering a nail in a door for every time he thought she'd been unfaithful. The nails quickly multiply, yet we're left with the vague impression that he's just imagining it all (Markham's later, unambiguous affairs make this seem less than likely). Further on, another husband claims that he wrote a great deal of "West With the Night" and is portrayed as a drunk who may be exaggerating. Maybe so, maybe not--it's hard to tell in this context.
Even more annoying than the lack of clarity over what Markham did or didn't do in her life is the film's sketchiness over why she did certain things.
Why, for example, did she suddenly decide to learn how to fly? Why did she love Kenya so much? Why did she philander? The closest thing to a deep insight comes when Powers' Markham says she was "never able to resist a new thrill or new challenge." But was it courage or mere flightiness?
Still, under Richardson's capable direction, the sketchy panorama is a watchable one--even if the African-landscape scenes are curiously disappointing (don't expect an "Out of Africa"-scale lushness).
And one thing is absolutely clear: Former "Hart to Hart" star Powers had her heart in this role. Sharing much in common with her character--she also has a home in Kenya and is a pilot--Powers gives the performance of her life. She also sports a very convincing British accent.
With more width than depth, "Shadow in the Sun" lacks the psychological perception that would have made it more moving. But in the end the movie's strengths outweigh its faults. Should those other Markham films ever materialize, this one has given them a reasonably high standard to try to top.