I firmly think there's a line that you can draw between movies your parents watch and those that you do, but it's a little more subtle than whether I like the latest Tarantino film and they don't, and never will. Consider that Out of Africa cleaned up at the Oscars, winning seven statuettes in many production categories (and was nominated for four others). I never understood why that happened, as I thought the film was the equivalent of green leafy vegetables to me as a kid. Now that I have grown up and my tastes have supposedly evolved, it's finally time to give this epic romance film a bit of a shot. It's only fair, since I like broccoli and asparagus now.
The film is based on Isak Dinesen's book based on her experiences on the continent. Adapted into a screenplay by Kurt Luedtke (Random Hearts) and directed by Sydney Pollack (The Interpreter), Meryl Streep (Fantastic Mr. Fox) plays Karen Blixen (Dinesen was Blixen's pen name). Karen is a baroness living in Denmark and married to Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer, Never Say Never Again), and she decides they should relocate to Kenya to start a dairy farm.
When she gets there though, she's surprised to learn that Bror has decided they should start a coffee plantation with the land they have, and in an untested area that proves to be a risky proposition. This isn't the first time Bror decides to work 'off the grid,' as it were, as he pays little attention to the plantation, and spends more time philandering, to the point where he gives Karen syphilis, despite not showing any symptoms of it himself.
Enter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford, The Natural), a big game hunter who has lived in the country for several years before Karen arrived. Denys is a little more of a free spirit than Karen is, and seems to wonder if Karen's excursion to Africa is nothing more than symbolic, or even forceful when she tries to get some of the villagers to read and speak English. The two have a mutual interest and fascination with the other's personality traits. Karen has a need to want to control everything while Denys tends to act more on instinct. As Karen and Bror's relationship starts to crumble, the one she has with Denys continues to build.
Pollack does a great job of making sure that we see a lot of wide shots of African wilderness and awe, which would likely be what Karen saw when she was first arriving to the country, or seeing it with Denys on their expeditions. When they are approached by two charging lions, things hold in slow motion, probably unlike a similar feeling of impending tragedy for the possible "meal" of the animal. That they save one another from the lions almost serves as a point where each of them can slightly see each other on common ground. From there, it's interesting to see how much more affable Karen is with the natives. Not that she wasn't before, but she understands more how they feel about the anglos coming into Africa, and hopes things will change for the better.
As far as the performances go, many of the actors who appear in the film do great work. The one qualm I had would be that Redford seems to have moments where he wants to do an accent, but eschews it almost entirely. Pollack discusses this in the commentary that the disc comes with, saying that to do this would be to change Redford's appearance for the viewer. While he and Redford seemed to like Redford's accent, its Robert fricken Redford, there's nothing you really need to do to change him. Streep can change however she pleases, and does a great job as Blixen for the film, disappearing into the language as if one would get into a warm bath. One can see this personal transformation and admire it, not to mention the one that didn't occur on Redford's part.
Ultimately, Out of Africa seems to combine larger, epic-sized moments and breathtaking cinematography with an interesting love story. It's almost a Lawrence of Arabia with a romance type of thing going on, in terms of the film's size and style approach. Therefore, while it may not be everyone's cup of tea, it's certainly worth watching to appreciate the views and the performances. It's good for you to experience, much like anything else you resisted when you were a child.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Universal presents Out of Africa in its high-definition presentation of 1.85:1 widescreen with the AVC codec, a departure from the normal VC-1 that they normally use. Honestly I wasn't sure to expect, though seeing Karen and Bror in front of a green screen meant to be the Danish winter was a little disconcerting. With distractions like that out of the way, the exterior shots on location look good. There isn't the level of detail or much of a multidimensional feel that you would hope for, but fine detail such as fabric textures can be made out rather well, and flesh tones appear to be reproduced as faithfully as possible. By no means is this a revelation in high definition in part to its age and presumed condition since it was released, but Out of Africa looks fair enough on Blu-ray.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is a tough one to figure out, particularly because to the best of my knowledge, previous releases (including the flip side of this disc), there's only been a lossy four-channel Dolby surround track with no center channel involvement. The lossless track doesn't noticeably impress, though there are moments where gunfire rings out and startles the viewer, and the roar of the lions sounds through all channels, and there is faithful ambient noise reproduction for sounds like mosquitoes and other insects. Dialogue is a little weak, but forgivable, and there's even an instance of speaker panning or two. For its age, the film holds up nicely from a sonic perspective.
It appears Universal has taken the extras from the 2000 Collector's Edition, and put them (and the film) on a BD/SD flipper disc, while boasting this is a 25th Anniversary Edition. The commentary with Sydney Pollack starts things off, he maintains a solid balance of examining the story and characters and recollection on the production itself. He talks about how he came to the material and covers the real-life versus cinematic details for the characters, and discusses the contributions of some members of the crew. He remembers what Redford and Streep (along with Brandauer) brought to the film and their individual contributions for it, and shares his thoughts on Blixen's work and how he translated it to this film. He talks about the production challenges of the film and how he shot it to take advantage of the African vistas. And yes, even Redford's non-accent is covered to boot. Some of the real-life characters visited the set and he discusses those visits, and his impressions of the people. It's an excellent track and a must-listen for fans of the film.
Next is a documentary titled "Song of Africa," (1:12:45), which is less about the production and more about Blixen's life and stories during her time in Africa. Her marriage and other details are discussed by biographers, and there are many pictures of her and the real-life figures from her travels, and Streep and Pollack discuss their thoughts on her and their admirations. The piece includes passages read aloud to serve as segues into other longer segments. While the narrator of the documentary tends to be on the monotonous side of things, this is an excellent historical piece on the film and worth viewing if you're a die-hard fan. Next is the deleted scenes roll (15:02), varying in length from quick ones of three or four seconds to longer ones of several minutes. There wasn't a list so it was a little difficult to get a number (I counted about 20 overall). The trailer (3:00) rounds out the disc, and on a sidenote, it was a little jarring to hear '80s music next to a film set in the early 20th century, so I was glad Universal didn't rely on this tactic too often during the era.
Coming out of this, I'm not a devotee of Out of Africa, but I do respect and admire a solidly made and acted film, and Universal's treatment of it seems to be a little lacking. From a blah encode/transfer to an equally blah lossless soundtrack, it feels like the film isn't getting the justice it deserves. The supplements are good, so if you haven't seen it, give it a spin. If you have seen it, you're only paying for a average-ish bump in technical quality.