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Karen (Meryl Streep)
"You do like to change things," Denys says, as a smile stretches across his face.
He's not kidding.
Karen Blixen wasn't a woman who colored inside the lines. She fled the confines of European society, where women were expected to look pretty and keep quiet, for the space of Africa, where being eaten by a lion was an actual possibility. There, she established a school for the native Kikuyu people who lived on and worked her land. She ran an entire coffee plantation on her own at a time when it was still unusual for women to wear pants.
Someone who defied convention that much was sure to have an unconventional romance. If you're looking for the flashy, heaving breasts of a swooning woman overcome with l'amour, you've come to the wrong literary adaptation. This is a much more reserved and naturalistic account of those passions. Karen's smart, strong, and daring, and really in no need of rescuing, thankyouverymuch. From the beginning, she's ready to break out of the role everyone wants to put her in.
Except…she badly wants to be married.
In December of 1912, the real-life Karen had just turned 27, and had no prospects.
KAREN: I've got no life at all. They wouldn't teach me anything useful. Now I've failed to marry. You know the punishment for that. Miss Dinesen's at home.
That's why she ends up with Bror. She was actually sleeping with his brother at the time, but he didn't love her back, and Bror offered her a way out of the big walls Denmark was forcing her to live behind. She was nothing if not practical, and knew an easy out when she saw it. As she explains to Bror at one point:
KAREN: We're a pair, you and I. I mean, at least we're friends. We might be all right. And if we weren't, at least we'd have been somewhere.
So, with a handshake, rather than a declaration of eternal love, she and Bror flee the conventional life and trade it for the freedom of early colonial Africa.
We're not in Kansas anymore
Africa was very attractive to many wealthy Europeans around the time that Karen and Bror Blixen moved there. It was exotic, peaceful, and there were plenty of servants available to keep them in the lifestyle they were used to. Plus, white people were the masters in colonial Europe.
Still, most of them didn't have a clue about what they were getting themselves into. Here's a scene when Karen first arrives:
KAREN: Oh! get away from there! Shoo Shoo!
KAREN: Oh! That's all my crystal, my Limoges.
Seriously. Crystal and Limoges. Just what you need for an elegant lunch in the hills.
Let's just say that many Europeans didn't seem all that interested in assimilating in the local culture. They socialized among themselves; the native Kenyans were Karen's servants, and they called her "msabu"—white lady boss.
Much of the film is about Karen's coming to appreciate the unique landscape and culture of Africa, and her growing recognition that, white lady boss aside, she doesn't really own or control the land and the people. Even though she has a big house filled with all her imported stuff from home, she learns to feel part of the place:
KAREN: If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?
The film has been criticized for romanticizing colonial rule in Kenya, as well as for a condescending attitude towards the locals (who are the ones who make it possible for Karen to even survive after she gets there, after all). Sure, she goes to the local authorities to plead on their behalf when she has to sell her land, but she calls them "my Kikuyu."
KAREN: I want my Kikuyu to learn to read.
DENYS: "My Kikuyu," "my Limoges," "my farm." It's an awful lot to own, isn't it?
That one sentence pretty much wraps up the whole conflict. Karen wants to be seen as benevolent, but it comes off as condescension.
To be fair, we do see her working in the field right alongside "her" Kikuyu, and the book on which the film is based shows that Karen as much more self-aware than she comes off in the film. Her memoirs have very full characterizations of her African servants and helpers; as far as the film's concerned, they exist to serve her (source), and we don't learn much else about their personal lives.
Hey, she's Meryl Streep—what can we say?
Still, in the last scenes, we see Karen bidding farewell to her beloved servant Farah; she realizes he's never even called her by her name, and she asks him to do it. It's an acknowledgment of his humanity.
Director Sydney Pollack struggled with how to convey the built-in racism of the colonial era in Africa. He didn't want to misrepresent it by giving the characters more modern, tolerant attitudes—that would be revising history—but he wanted to paint a respectful portrait of the African characters. Even though Karen and her European buddies assume the roles of the superiors, the servants and workers are portrayed as smart, capable, and pretty tolerant themselves.
It's a good thing Karen's so tough and resilient.
Bror has a hard time keeping his fly zipped, for starters. Half of the movie encompasses only a year of their life together, but we see Bror in several implied affairs in little over an hour of movie.
If her philandering husband weren't enough, Karen's left alone on the farm for long periods of time, a farm which turns out to be a coffee plantation instead of a dairy farm like Bror promised. She has some friends like Felicity and Berkeley and Denys who come to visit, but she's essentially left alone to manage everything.
The movie doesn't go on much about it—this isn't a pound-you-over-the-head kind of deal—but she speaks of loneliness sometimes, and Streep makes sure we understand where Our Girl is coming from on that front, as she explains in one of her voice-overs:
KAREN: Men go off to be tested for courage. If we're tested at all, it's for patience, for doing without, for how well we can endure loneliness. But I had always known that.
So clearly, she can take the punches, even in somewhere as getting-eaten-by-a-lion heavy as Africa. She's also pretty aware that men and women play by different rules, and she's not exactly happy about it.
Still, she's definitely the sort to make lemonade out of lemons… until one of those lemons gives her syphilis and she has to go back to Denmark for treatment. This is a patient woman, but when your husband gives you a potentially fatal disease because he's sleeping with every woman he passes (seriously, were they taking numbers and waiting?), she finally boots his womanizing butt out.
Even so, she's looking for that escape from all those typical expectations of women, and wants a man who gets it enough to be with her. She figures that might come in the shape of Denys Finch Hatton, the super-hunky big game hunter. Bror promised her an escape, but Denys is the love she always wanted, as she explains in her voice-over:
KAREN: I've written about all the others, not because I loved them less, but because they were clearer, easier.
The second half of the film turns into a game of romantic chess: she wants him, but while he's clearly into her, he has a thing about being tied down. Each of them makes moves in a never ending negotiation about how love should work in the idealized and isolated world they created for themselves.
It doesn't work out.
He won't commit, she throws him out, and just when it looks like he might change his mind and come back to her, he's killed in a plane crash. Some people really can't catch a break, but, by now, we know Karen's a lot stronger than she looks.
And that's really the point. Anyone who chooses an unconventional life must be prepared for some serious curve balls, and they come at Karen like a pitching machine set to "decapitate." When Denys dies tragically, crashing his plane in Voi, there's truly nothing left for her in Kenya. Even then, she departs on her own terms.
Karen chooses a spot in the hills to have Denys buried with a view of the countryside that they loved so well together, looking the lost romance right in the eye and taking it for what it is.
KAREN: Now take back the soul of Denys George Finch Hatton, whom You have shared with us. He brought us joy and we loved him well. He was not ours. He was not mine.
Maybe she finally realizes that the Kikuyu weren't "hers" either.
There's a saying: it doesn't matter that you are knocked down; it only matters that you get back up again. Perhaps Out of Africa, and the life of Karen Blixen, still resonates for this reason. We might even have Denys to thank for encouraging her to write down stories.
That's where all the strength and perseverance really pays off. Karen picked up the tattered remnants of a life denied and she published her first novel, Seven Gothic Tales, in 1934 under the name Isak Dinesen. As a writer, she crushed it: mixing autobiographical prose with the poetry of descriptive verse into some of the best literature of the 20th century that have lasted the ages.
Could she have done that without the unending blizzard of beatdowns that she experienced in Africa?
But very few people could have come out of all of that and kept going, which is just what Karen did. In her writing—and in the film—we see her pain and her joy, but most importantly, we see her unique manner of standing back up under the weight of unspeakable loss and tragedy. Her strength in Out of Africa is a wall of determination in a world filled with loss.
You go, girl.
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