Sydney Pollack's Out of Africa (1985) just passed the 25-year mark recently...but in many ways, it hasn't aged much. Our story revolves around Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep), a Danish Baroness who moves to Africa during a marriage of convenience and falls in love with a well-traveled hunter, Denys Finch-Hatton (Robert Redford). Blixen's husband Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer) seems to offer little support: Karen intended to use her money to start a dairy, but he decides to start a coffee plantation instead. To make matters worse, Bror shows little interest in keeping the plantation in working order, choosing instead to leave on safari whenever it's convenient. Naturally, the pieces fall into place quickly: Bror doesn't pose any threat to Karen's inevitable romance with Denys, but Out of Africa thankfully hasn't been built around a soapy, complicated love triangle. It's simply the story of Karen's encounters and struggles in a foreign land, whether it be with Denys, the local Kikuyu tribe, deadly diseases or roaming wildlife. Clocking in at just under 160 minutes, Out of Africa doesn't move particularly fast and there's very little in the way of action...but once the story picks up steam, it's certainly not dull.
Based loosely on the eponymous memoir by the real-life Karen Blixen, this adaptation takes plenty of liberties with the source material. The film omits some of the more unfortunate aspects of Blixen's adventures, most notably a catastrophic locust swarm and at least one failed pregnancy with Finch-Hatton. The character of Bror is also cast in a more distant light: Blixen's memoir makes reference to safaris taken together, where the film basically depicts him sneaking off without her. In all fairness, most of the major omissions are for simple dramatic purposes and, of course, time. Out of Africa is meant to be a retrospective tale of one woman's travels and changing desires; in that sense, it works just fine.
The excellent score by John Barry and cinematography by David Watkin aren't exactly unsung heroes; in fact, they're just two of the seven Oscars the film was awarded that year...and in this reviewer's opinion, they're also the ones Out of Africa deserved the most. Our story is framed by beautiful African landscapes, terrific wildlife footage and vivid colors that make it easy to get lost in the film's rich atmosphere. Barry's memorable score often captures the mood perfectly without feeling too intrusive or heavy-handed...unlike the theatrical trailer, which favors keyboards over piano. Interestingly enough, an alternate version of Barry's original score was released on CD in 1997; conducted by Joel McNeely and featuring the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, it's slightly inferior but still worth seeking out.
Though it's not printed in extra-large bold type on the cover, this Digibook Combo Pack is not just a simple repackage of the 2010 Blu-Ray/DVD release...which is a good thing, because it wasn't exactly a great effort. What we do get is a new visual presentation that corrects a few problems, as well as a fancy packaging job and separate discs instead of a flipper. Improvements all around, which makes this a well-rounded effort that's only missing new bonus features. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Luckily for fans of the film, Out of Africa has been newly remastered for 2012, and the resulting picture is definitely an improvement over the initial Blu-Ray release from two years ago. The edge enhancement that plagued that edition has all but vanished, revealing a more pleasing image that does the Oscar-winning cinematography justice. This 1080p transfer of the 1.85:1 source material also boasts a pleasing layer of natural film grain (though a small amount of DNR may have been used), while rich hues preserve the film's warm color palette. Textures are also crisp and well-defined, especially during brightly-lit outdoor scenes. Black levels are especially deep and rich. Long story short: this is the best that Out of Africa has ever looked at home...and for the first time, there's very little room for improvement.
Presented in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio and also available in a French dub, the audio sounds about the same as before...which isn't a bad thing. The film's outdoor landscapes frequently lend themselves to natural ambiance, dialogue is crisp and John Barry's score rarely fights for attention. It's simply a great audio mix that only calls attention to itself when needed, so no complaints here. Optional English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles are included during the main feature and most of the applicable extras.
Packaging, Presentation & Menu Design
Seen above, this Limited Edition combo pack arrives in a handsome Digibook Case, featuring 44 pages of printed extras including personal letters, behind-the-scenes photos, promotional images, script excerpts and more. The Blu-Ray and DVD bookend the printed material inside, which also includes a loose promotional insert for upcoming Universal Blu-Rays and a Digital Copy redemption code. The menu interface is presented in typical Universal style, combining quick loading time with smooth, simple navigation. This 158-minute film has been divided into approximately two dozen chapters, no obvious layer change was detected during playback and the Blu-Ray is locked for Region "A" players only.
Unfortunately, the only extras included here are the exact same ones we've seen on previous Blu-Ray and DVD editions. These include a solid Audio Commentary
with the late Sydney Pollack, the well-rounded documentary "Song of Africa"
(72:46), just under two dozen Deleted Scenes
(15:01) and a rather worn-out looking Theatrical Trailer
(3:01). All bonus features are presented in standard definition and include optional English subtitles, save for the audio commentary. It's a shame nothing new was added to this release; even a few tributes to recently deceased crew members (Pollack, cinematographer David Watkin and set decorator Josie McAvin, to name a few) would've been greatly appreciated.
This two-disc Combo Pack also includes a DVD and Digital Copy of the film; unfortunately, the former is just a copy of the ragged 2000 release. Optimists will be able to appreciate the huge difference.
Out of Africa is definitely an acquired taste, even for fans of the "sweeping romantic epic" genre. Redford and Streep serve as capable leads with solid chemistry, though, and their fleeting encounters certainly hold enough weight to anchor the film nicely. The film's Oscar-winning cinematography is simply icing on the cake. Universal's newly-minted Blu-Ray rights a few wrongs from the former release; namely, a stronger visual presentation and the lack of a "flipper" disc. Combine that with a beautiful packaging job, and the only real problem here is a lack of fresh bonus features. New viewers might be happy with a rental, but long-time fans should consider this a redemptive effort worth owning. Recommended.
NOTE: The above images were obtained from promotional outlets and do not represent Blu-Ray's native 1080p resolution.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two in his spare time. Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD-DVDs and writing stuff in third person.