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‘The Pact’ Review: An Older, Embittered Karen Blixen is a Very Long Way Out of Africa in a Dry Literary Biopic

Focusing on the Danish literary titan's toxic mentorship of young poet Thorkild Bjørnvig, Bille August's film is handsomely mounted but narratively inert.

The Pact
Courtesy of Juno Films

For many of us, the first mental image prompted by the name Karen Blixen is of a radiant Meryl Streep, resplendent in oatmeal linen and undulating safari hat, romantically lit in the tawny Kenyan dusk. If you wish that to remain the case, best to steer clear of “The Pact” — not that Bille August’s flat, unflattering portrait of the older Blixen should be appointment viewing for anyone. Drawn from Danish poet Thorkild Bjørnvig’s memoir of his thorny friendship with, and tutelage under, the older literary icon, this well-dressed midcentury period piece keeps teasing a darker, more perverse take on a familiar story of cross-generational creative mentorship. Yet despite a performance of unnerving severity by Birthe Neumann as the rancorous Blixen, the film remains too polite and light on incident to deliver on that promise.

Written by Danish TV heavyweight Christian Torpe (“Rita”), the screenplay of “The Pact” bristles with quiet but disquieting tensions, as the sixtysomething Blixen fixates on 30-year-old up-and-coming writer Bjørnvig (Simon Bennebjerg) with a possessive intensity that amounts to an unusual kind of intellectual eroticism — she wants control not over his body, but his mind and talent. Given more inventive visual storytelling, this dynamic could have yielded an eerie, unusual psychodrama on roughly the same under-stocked shelf as Josephine Decker’s wildly fictionalized Shirley Jackson biopic “Shirley.” As it is, August coats the material in the neutral prestige varnish that has marked most of his latter-day work. Even the muscular affinity for melodrama that brought the director two Palmes d’Or for “Pelle the Conqueror” and “The Best Intentions” in decades past is little in evidence here.

Opening title cards provide a potted history of Blixen’s earlier career for anyone unfamiliar with either her work or the film “Out of Africa” — stressing her ill-fated romance with British hunter Denys Finch Hatton (played by Robert Redford in the 1985 Oscar champ) to a degree that foreshadows her emotional embitterment in this particular story. In 1948, where “The Pact” begins, Blixen’s African sojourn is a distant memory: Single and imperious, she lives on her sprawling family estate, Rungstedlund, on Denmark’s Øresund coast, where she regularly hosts the country’s cultural elite for elaborate parties. “She’s a person just like everyone else,” says Bjørnvig’s modest librarian wife Grete (Nanna Skaarup Voss) to calm her antsy husband, after he’s invited to Rungstedlund for an audience with Baroness Blixen herself. She’ll soon regret those words.

Having heard word of his talent on the literary grapevine, Blixen invites the naive author to write her authorized biography, only to be impressed when he turns her down. “There’s another reason we met,” she says, insisting that she can launch him to literary greatness. “I must help you use that courage.” At first, Bjørnvig is flattered by her investment in his fledgling career, accepting her invitations to patron-populated soirees and private mentoring sessions alike. Yet her interest in him takes a less benevolent turn as she seeks greater control of his personal life, which she deems too staid and petit bourgeois to serve his gifts — in her view, his placidly content family life with Grete and their young son Bo simply will not do. “When was the last time you read the word ‘wife’ in a work of art?” she protests, pushing the weak-willed Bjørnvig instead toward an affair with married, glamorous bright young thing Benedectine (Asta Kamma August).

There’s potential for both queasy psychological tension and mordant black comedy in this setup, though having established the ideological battle lines early on, “The Pact” does little to advance them over the course of a languid 110 minutes — during which Bjørnvig bounces back and forth between these three women with a gormless lack of resolve. As a character, he’s distinguished by little but a clean-scrubbed handsomeness, and the same goes for the film itself. Brightly and exactingly lit by DP Manuel Alberto Claro (best known for his more atmospheric work with Lars von Trier), “The Pact” follows “Out of Africa” in situating Karen Blixen against a consistently attractive backdrop of soft, forgiving skies and gorgeously upholstered interiors — even if the character now comes with added age, rage and a chronic case of syphilis. That ought to be the more interesting proposition, but August’s film treats its subject altogether too gingerly, like a literature student afraid to make notes in the margins.

‘The Pact’ Review: An Older, Embittered Karen Blixen is a Very Long Way Out of Africa in a Dry Literary Biopic

Reviewed online, Feb. 10, 2022. Running time: 110 MIN. (Original title: "Pagten")

  • Production: (Denmark) A Juno Films release of an SF Studios, Motor presentation in co0-production with Scope Pictures. Producers: Jesper Morthorst, Karin Trolle.
  • Crew: Director: Bille August. Screenplay: Christian Torpe, based on the book by Thorkild Bjørnvig. Camera: Manuel Alberto Claro. Editors: Janus Billeskov Jansen, Anne Østerud. Music: Frédéric Vercheval.
  • With: Simmon Bennebjerg, Birthe Neumann, Nanna Skaarup Voss, Asta Kamma August, Anders Heinrichsen, Marie Mondrup. (Danish, English dialogue)