Out of Africa

by James Gesner

Out of Africa is a 1985 film, directed by Sydney Pollack and written by Kurt Luedtke. This is, in my humble opinion, one of the finest films of this genre ever made. The film stars Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen, Robert Redford as Denys Finch Hatton and Klaus Maria Brandauer as Bror Blixen. The film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Sydney Pollack. Meryl Streep was nominated for Best Actress but did not win. This film is based on the autobiography written by Karen Blixen (under the pseudonym of Isak Dinesen – her maiden name was Dinesen), published in 1937. This film I chose because under our focus, of doomed love affairs, it has not just one but many doomed love affairs presented through out. The character Karen Blixen has a doomed love affair that has just ended right at the beginning of the film, with Bror’s brother Hans. Just as her relationship has ended with Hans, the next scene is Karen proposing to Bror that they be wed, for her to be a titled married woman, and for Bror to have access to her money. Karen believes they will be a fine couple because they entering into this agreement of marriage as best of friends, and she does not expect a loving marriage just one of convenience. This starts Karen Blixen off on the path of first of many doomed love affairs in the film.

After Karen and Bror’s quick engagement, the film then transitions to Karen arriving to Africa, riding the train to meet Bror who went to Africa ahead of her. This scene depicts the first meeting of Karen and Denys, and it is apparent there is an immediate attraction between the two. As Karen arrives into town, she goes searching for Bror, going in first to a gentleman’s bar where no women are allowed. She is quickly escorted out, embarrassed, but finally finds Bror who informs her that he did not even expect her to come, guessing that she wouldn’t want to spend the money. Bror and Karen are immediately married an hour later in a quaint ceremony. The dissolution of their relationship has already had seeds planted at the wedding, where Bror is found by Karen to be flirting with another woman. Bror informs Karen that she bought his title, she does not own him and tells her to be careful. Karen then shoots right back at him, that her brother came to visit her before she left, implying she had an affair after their engagement. Karen then demands to be taken to her new house which is on a new coffee farm, not a dairy farm that she had agreed with Bror upon.

At this point, Bror has already left to become a big game hunter, and Karen is left on her own at the farm to get all the workers working, to attend to the local tribes needs and to keep the home. Denys is then reintroduced to us, helping Karen stay away from a wild female lion. Denys is shown in an earlier scene, when Karen is in his room snooping, to be an avid reader. It is apparent to the audience that Denys is a well-educated man, most likely comes from a noble family line, and is in Africa not because of necessity but of wanting to be there. He is a non conformist just like Karen is, but an even more free spirit than her. He challenges her emotionally and intellectually, from their first dinner together where he challenges her to tell an entire fictional tale after he starts it with just one vague character and sentence. Denys is obviously very much infatuated with Karen and it shows in their conversations together. After a period throughout the first third of the film a mutual flirtatious relationship is being developed between her and Denys, this is bringing to an end her first affair with Bror.

Bror wants nothing to do with the farm itself, and is just as keenly interested in Karen and her needs as well. Bror has been carrying on with mistresses from the moment they were wedded, and we discover that Bror has contracted syphilis and had passed it to Karen. Karen up until that point had been developing real feelings and love for Bror, and was trying to get him to stay with her instead of going out on his hunts and into the town to meet his lovers. When she finds out that she has syphilis, Karen must depart Africa and make her way back to Denmark where she has to suffer a long and difficult treatment to cure her disease, which was quietly deadly at the time. We find that she can no longer have children as a result of Bror’s indiscretions and passing her the disease. As she returns from Denmark to Africa and to her farm that Bror was supposed to be keeping up and running, we find along with Karen that Bror has not changed at all, is still carrying on with many other women and not paying any attention to her farm. This is the end of her love affair with Bror, as she asks him to move out immediately.

As Bror moves out, Denys is beginning to move closer with Karen. Their friendship is growing and Karen is upfront with Denys about wanting them to realize a long-lasting relationship as lovers, but Denys is as she says impossible to own or tame as Africa itself. Denys is one who hates labels and titles and ownership, over all things and people; he’s an ideal nomad and wants to come and go as he pleases. But he also tells Karen that even if they ever did get married, that the piece of paper proclaiming that marriage would never make him love her more. Denys even scolds Karen for her desires for material things and ownership capitalistic mentality. But Karen accepts the situation, probably realizing that if she pushed Denys to an ultimatum of staying with her, or losing her and going back out on his own into the wild, he would choose the latter. So Denys comes and goes as he pleases, and she pines for him every time he leaves her.

Denys does eventually agree to move in with her, but it is basically just a place for him to stay when he returns from his long hunting trips or flying his bi-plane around Africa. Karen divides her time on the farm with teaching the tribal children who work on her farm. She opens a onsite school and teaches the children reading, writing, arithmetic and European customs. But as she is focusing more on these kids, probably to the fact that she can not have children anymore due to her illness earlier, and pining away for Denys the farm has come into very serious financial difficulty. Karen is forced to get bank loans to keep her farm open, and even though it took years to happen the coffee she is cultivating is finally starting to yield a profit. With this, the pinnacle of her adventure is here, and now it is time to lose everything and everyone.

A wild-fire breaks out on the plantation and all the crops, her factory and all the equipment are destroyed. Karen is now destitute living in a foreign land, but she still is waiting for her Denys to return to her from his latest trip. This part of the story mirrors that of British East Africa as well, as all of the British that have made it their home there are becoming un-planted from the society as BEA transitions to the Kenya colony. She still is waiting for Denys to return, her love for him still very strong – but at the same time she is angry that he was not with her through these hard times. Denys tried staying there, only with her, and he became restless and distant, so again she compromises what she wants and allows Denys to again go and hunt or fly, with the knowledge that he would still return when he was done, instead of losing him forever. One scene that is fantastic, is the scene where Denys takes her up for her first flight, in his bi-plane to see Africa how he sees it; and I think that helped her understand why he was so in love with the continent and how he lived his life.

After selling all of her possessions, Karen is almost at rock bottom. But Denys does show up, just as her house is empty of the “things” she had to own, that Denys had criticised her for. They have one last dance with each other, and she knows that Denys will not leave Africa to go with her back to Britain or Denmark. Denys does agree to fly her to Mombasa, so she can return home and he can see her again before she leaves, in the bi-lane in the next couple of days. And this is the end of her love affair with Denys, as she finds out while she is waiting for him to return, that Denys’s plane has crashed and he was killed. Karen attends Denys’s funeral in the Ngong Hills Karen Blixen has now lost everything that mattered to her from the beginning of the movie. She has lost her husband, her money, her title, her ability to have a family, her true love of Denys and her home in Africa. Even the men at the gentleman’s bar, who kicked her out without words in the beginning, allow her to enter and have a drink with them before she departs.

The movie featured doomed love affairs through out, all involving Karen as the one experiencing the greatest losses. Karen and Hans. Karen and Bror. Karen and her farm. Karen and teaching the tribe children, surrogate to her inability to have her own children. Karen and Denys (the main doomed love affair), and finally Karen and Africa; as it is said that she never returned to Africa after that.


One thought on “Film: Out Of Africa

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