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The African Queen

Meryl Streep is back in top form. This means that her performance in Out of Africa is at the highest level of acting in film today. Also, since she is Streep, it means that a return to form is not a return: she has realized a character utterly different from any she has done before. As was true of Brando, Streep uses her star status to risk versatility, not to sell a standard product. In her last film, Plenty, she faltered: as the postwar Englishwoman, she lacked confidence, the crisp English enjoyment of comic bitterness. As Karen Blixen, Streep is superb.

Remember that Streep has previously done such roles as the small-town checkout girl in The Deer Hunter, the Southern aristo in The Seduction of Joe Tynan, the 19th-century romantic in The French Lieutenant's Woman, the Polish refugee in Sophie's Choice, and the Southern factory worker in Silkwood, and her achievement here seems all the more splendid. In Out of Africa, she is the Danish gentlewoman who runs an African farm for 17 years before going home to become the renowned author Isak Dinesen. Certainly Streep was helped by the director Sydney Pollack; she has been exquisitely costumed by Milena Canonero in styles that range from 1914 to 1931, she has been subtly made up by J. Roy Helland to make her cheekbones look higher, her eyes a bit smaller, and to give her face a Nordic cast something like the young Blixen. But it was Streep herself who mastered the Danish accent. (I saw Dinesen's one American TV appearance in 1959. Her voice was deeper, Delphic, but, as far as I can recall, Streep has the same accent and lilt.) She uses the accent and the accoutrements like an artist: to realize the vision with which she began. First she saw Karen Blixen, then moved into her. We feel that, if she were cut, she would bleed Blixen blood.

Streep becomes--we may as well say "becomes"--the young Danish woman who emigrates to East Africa to marry a Swedish baron whom she likes rather than loves and to start a coffee plantation with him. He is not much use. She plunges into the work of the plantation; falls profoundly in love with the people and landscape and animal life and weather and air. She contracts syphilis from her husband and has to go home for treatment. When she returns to Africa, she finds more kinds of courage in herself with which to face physical and moral crises. She divorces, then takes a lover who is eventually killed in a plane crash. At the last she leaves Africa, still the quietly elegant woman she was when she came but with new ideas of devotion and strength and great perception of mystery. Streep embraces all of this woman with affection and ease, with originality that comes from truth, not from oddity. Her voice, though it is not yet what it may become, is limbered by the accent and lilt. Her bearing and movement are simply noble. It is beautiful acting.

Robert Redford is Denys Finch Hatton, her lover, and, as always, is an attractive screen presence. The role makes no demands on him that he can't meet easily--the professional hunter who likes his independence--except one that he ignores completely. Finch Hatton was the son of an earl, but Redford doesn't attempt an English accent though his friends are played by English actors. It sounds odd. Karen's husband is Klaus Maria Brandauer, who is more subtle here than he was in either Mephisto or Colonel Rell. When Brandauer has to express heavy emotion, he himself always seems to get heavier, fleshier. Here no such moments are called for, only several sorts of caddish reticence, which he supplies with proper detestable charm.

Suzanna Hamilton, so vivid in 1984 and Wetherby, is a budding English girl in the colony, and does her best to define an undefined role. Among the many other actors, Malick Bowens excels as Farah, Karen’s dignified and devoted Somali servant--tall, taciturn, winning.

When I saw that David Watkin was the cinematographer--his most recent film was White Nights--my heart jumped because I knew that the exteriors had been shot in Kenya. No disappointments here. Some of the compositions are predictable and probably inevitable: the sunsets, the silhouette processions along ridges; but Watkin looks at everything with the intent of getting at its essence freshly. His wizardry verifies the East Africa that Karen Blixen talks about--and that Isak Dinesen later wrote about.

Sydney Pollack might be called a Streep among directors because of his versatility, except that his work is more reliable than extraordinary. His last film was the adroit Tootsie; before that, among others, there were They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, the undervalued Jeremiah Johnson, and Three Days of the Condor. Scene by scene Pollack has directed Out of Africa firmly, sympathetically. (He has often worked with Redford. I noted that the only huge close-up of the film is of Redford.) In none of his films is there anything that can clearly be called a Pollack style. Without such a style, the best that a director can do is to be invisible, which means doing nothing wrong. Almost all the time, Pollack has this rare negative virtue.

The one troubling element is the screenplay by Kurt Luedtke. His only previous film was Absence of Malice, also directed by Pollack, and doubtless Pollack had a hand in modeling this new script. Luedtke has gifts: he writes brisk, understated dialogue and many well-shaped scenes. But he had difficulties here. His screenplay was drawn from Out of Africa and other Dinesen writings; from Silence Will Speak, a biography of Finch Hatton by Errol Trzebinski; and from Judith Thurman’s biography of Dinesen. (Thurman is an associate producer of the film.) Those sources are both the blessing and burden of the script. Obviously, they provide the wonderful leading character and her wonderful experiences; but they bind the script to factuality, to the effect of chronicle instead of drama. Luedtke has slimmed and trimmed details (though the running time is two-and-a-half hours), and, so far as I can see, without serious alteration. But this fidelity, which was imperative, means that the film tends to meander, rather than course strongly, especially toward the end. It’s a familiar cleft stick. The only solution I can think of is that Luedtke might have made greater use of narration. He uses a flashback technique: we get a very brief early glimpse of the aged author, and her voice, heard from time to time throughout, puts the whole picture in a frame of memory. The narration could have been used to condense more minor material, like the horse show.

But even in the last half hour or so, when we feel that the film is winding on in fidelity rather than urgency, Streep never wavers. Her performance is always so true, so interesting, that she holds us by the living of Karen’s life, even when strophes are repeated or intensity fluctuates.

One last aspect: the film functions two ways in time. It derives, in substantial part, from Dinesen’s writing that was yet to come; yet what we see happening “now” is the source of the writings from which the “now” derives. To think that when this extraordinary African career of Karen Blixen’s is over, Isak Dinesen is waiting to be born. That is thrilling.

Stanley Kauffmann is a film critic for The New Republic.

By Stanley Kauffmann