At two-and-a-half hours, “Out of Africa” certainly makes a leisurely start into its story. Just short of boredom, however, the picture picks up pace and becomes a sensitive, enveloping romantic tragedy. Nonetheless it’s a long way to go for a downbeat ending, which may hurt broad appeal.
Getting top billing over Robert Redford, Meryl Streep surely earns it with another engaging performance. Still, the film rarely really comes to life except when Redford is around, which unfortunately is not often in the first hour.
Ably produced and directed by Sydney Pollack, “Africa” is the story of Isak Dinesen, who wrote of her experiences in Kenya. Though Dinesen (real name: Karen Blixen) remembered it lovingly, hers was not a happy experience.
She arrives in 1914 for a marriage of convenience with Baron Bror Blixen (well played by Klaus Maria Brandauer) who offers his title and friendship in exchange for her money. But he doesn’t provide love, fidelity or even much company, leaving her alone with the natives for the gritty work of getting a coffee plantation going.
Often, her only amusements are the occasional visits of white hunters Redford and Michael Kitchen (also good), attracted by her strong will and love of the land. With one landscape after another, Pollack and lenser David Watkin prove repeatedly why she should love the land so, but at almost travelog drag. The mannered speech and customs of the times do not hurry matters along either.
Eventually, Streep and Brandauer split, leaving an opening for Redford to move in. True love follows, but not happiness because he’s too independent to be tied down by a marriage certificate. And the coffee plantation isn’t perking along too well, either.
Within the doomed dimensions, however, it’s a wonderful romance, probably Redford’s best since “The Way We Were.” He plays his initial casual counterpoint to her seriousness perfectly, followed by his gradual coming to grips with the concessions that will be needed to keep her.
Maybe the problem of the pacing is simply the nature of the beast these days with expensive period pieces. Once the difficult details are all in place, it may be too much to expect a director to resist milking every scene for more than it’s worth. And that’s probably equally true for every strong scene with a solid cast. But too long remains too long.