KAREN: I've written about all the others, not because I loved them less, but because they were clearer, easier.
Denys was very mysterious and unattainable. Their relationship was strange and complicated, with an abrupt and tragic finality to it. It made for a good memoir, but Karen suggests here that she needed time and perspective to do it right.
BROR: It's not as though you loved him. You'd like to be a baroness, that's all.
Karen loved Bror's brother, and Bror was more her friend. This is a conversation held between close friends: direct and honest. Perhaps she loved him for his title as well, but it's pretty clear that they're getting married for reasons other than romance.
KAREN: Bror, listen to me. 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." You've gone through all your money. You're off seducing the servant girls. 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.
BROR: You don't think you're being too romantic? Am I supposed to think you're serious?
Karen views marriage as a contract. She needs certain things to get out of her repressive bourgeois life, and Bror is broke. They're up front about it, so there's supposed to be no surprises. (Supposed to be.)
BERKELEY: I had a friend who I used to take to the dances at Oxford. They were in June by the river. She always wore a new silk dress. I think you're wearing her perfume. It's very nice, but it's not the same.
Berkeley is coyly flirting with Karen comparing her to an old flame. Well played, sir. One of the transgressive scenes in the film is when we realize that Berkeley, that proper English gentleman, has been carrying on an affair with his African servant.
KAREN: Next time you change your mind, you do it with your money.
BROR: They bought you a title, Baronessa. They didn't buy me.
KAREN: Fetch some wine for my lover's brother.
BROR: I think you're tired. Be careful.
KAREN: Did I tell you Hans came to say goodbye?
There's a reason why dramas so often feature love triangles: they're contentious and intense. Lots of yelling, which means great big emotions and great big drama.
KAREN: Do you really prefer [animals] to people?
DENYS: Sometimes. They don't do anything half-heartedly. Everything's for the first time. Hunting, working, mating. It's only man that does it badly. It's only man that tires of going through it. Who says, "See here. Now I know how you feel about me and you know how I feel about you, and we understand each other, so let's lie down and get on with it."
This scene is one of the many between Karen and Denys that resembles a strange romantic negotiation. Denys is about as subtle as a baseball bat to the gut, but it might also be the best way these two have of communicating their feelings.
KAREN: Oh, my God. I'll go to him.
DENYS: No, he wouldn't want you there.
DENYS: There's a woman there. She's Somali. She's been with him for some time.
KAREN: You never told me this.
DENYS: I didn't know.
When Karen learns of Berkeley's failing health, she wants to be there for him. We've already seen her administering basic medical care to the tribespeople, so it's reasonable to assume that she had some skill caring for the sick. Neither Karen nor Denys knew that Berkeley was involved with a Somali woman, but Denys assumes this is something that Berkeley wouldn't want to advertise.
KAREN: Why is your freedom more important than mine?
DENYS: It isn't. And I've never interfered with your freedom.
KAREN: No. I'm not allowed to need you. Or rely on you, or expect anything from you. I'm free to leave. But I do need you.
DENYS: You don't need me. If I die, will you die? You don't need me. You're confused. You've mixed up need with want. You always have.
KAREN: My God. In the world that you would make, there would be no love at all.
DENYS: Or the best kind. The kind we wouldn't have to prove.
KAREN: You'll be living on the moon then.
Put a ring on it? Not likely. Denys thinks that commitment is like a prison sentence. Karen has some trust issues, which is understandable after her ordeal with Bror. That's ultimately the thing that drives them apart, even though they really and truly love each other. Love just means different things to each of them.
DENYS: Let me help you.
KAREN: You would keep me, then? No. I want to be worth something now.
Karen's not interested in Denys just helping her financially; she still has this idea that marriage somehow defines her worth. This is not something that the real Karen believed for a minute, but it was pretty common at the time: another way to keep the sisters down.
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.
Karen honors Denys by seeming to acknowledge his attitudes about love, which don't come with ideas of ownership or control.
FELICITY: That's not much of a hat, though.
KAREN: It's meant to be stunning.
FELICITY: We die of sunstroke here.
KAREN: At least I'm safe from the mosquitos.
FELICITY: The big ones.
From the beginning, Karen is clearly out of her element. She's wearing an outfit that's suitable for a typical European wedding, but she's in Africa. To have a hat that offers no protection from the devastating sun can be more than bad fashion: it can kill you.
KAREN: If you put a dam here to stop the water, then I can make a pond here. Do you know how?
FARAH: This water must go home to Mombasa.
KAREN: It can go home after we make a pond.
FARAH: Msabu, this water lives at Mombasa.
Karen is doing what all colonials do. She wants to craft her environment to fit her expectations. By making a pond, she's terraforming to suit her needs. A pond is not practical, but decorative. To create the pond, you need to stop the water flow along its natural course; who knows what havoc it might wreak down the line where the water is expected? As you may have guessed, the whole pond thing doesn't end well. The message here is that the locals respect nature; the colonial invaders don't.
KAREN: Just how much closer did you expect to let her come?
DENYS: A bit. She wanted to see if you'd run. That's how they decide. A lot like people.
KAREN: She almost had me for lunch!
DENYS: It wasn't her fault. She's a lion.
KAREN: It wasn't mine.
DENYS: Doesn't that outfit come with a rifle?
KAREN: It's on my saddle.
DENYS: Better keep it with you. Your horse isn't much of a shot.
Karen is still living the life of a colonial in the bush. She has the perfect little outfit, her binoculars, and she's out exploring. The lion is just doing what it does. Karen's the one out of her element, not the cat that may or may not eat her.
FARAH: It's not good for tall people to know more than this chief. When these children are tall, then this chief can be dead.
It is very important in the Kikuyu tribe that the chief be the wisest. To Karen, the idea of denying an education to a child is unreasonable. Later, when Chief Kinanjui falls ill, he lifts the restrictions, allowing all children to learn. The world is changing, and even that chief has to acknowledge that he can't stop it.
DENYS: Masai. He was half Masai. That's what you remember about him. They're like nobody else. We think we'll tame them, but we won't. If you put them in prison, they die.
DENYS: Because they live now. They don't think about the future. They can't grasp the idea that they'll be let out one day. They think it's permanent. So they die. They're the only ones out here that don't care about us, and that is what will finish them.
Karen wrote in her memoir about how super-cool the Masai were. They are people who lived lives of pure honesty, who truly existed outside the expectations of the colonials. The movie kind of plays them as an x-factor, something that the whites will never completely understand.
FARAH: This chief says, "British can read, and what good has it done them?"
The colonials try to re-create Europe wherever they go, which really doesn't work in a place like Africa. To a tribal person, perhaps the modern conveniences seem like more of a bother. It suggests that this culture—you know, the one that actually started here—follows a completely different set of rules.
OFFICIAL: There is no arable land that size outside the reserve, and if there were, we'd not put natives on it.
KAREN: Since it's theirs.
OFFICIAL: It belongs to the crown, Baroness. What you want is quite impossible.
KAREN: Yes, it always is. Who must I see next?
This exchange is Exhibit A in colonial self-righteousness. Karen became more protective of Africa as she began to learn about it. Seriously, she sets up schools for the natives and provides basic medical care, unlike the British colonialists who were only interested making them work in the fields or serve drinks.
KAREN: Kenya is a hard country for women, so there is a chivalry here, of a sort. You are a powerful man, and I have no one else to turn to.
SIR JOSEPH: Let's discuss this in the proper way.
KAREN: You mustn't be embarrassed. I've lost everything. It costs me very little to beg you.
As long as Karen owned her land, she could allow the Kikuyu to stay. Since she lost it, she wanted to do the honorable thing and is willing to beg the officials to allow them their land. At this point, she's beyond being humiliated, so she gives it her best shot.
KAREN: Do you remember how it was on safari? In the afternoons I would send you ahead to look for a camp and you would wait for me. You can see the fire and come to this place.
KAREN: Well, it will be like that. Only this time I will go ahead and wait for you.
FARAH: It is far, where you are going?
FARAH: You must make this fire very big so I can find you.
Farah was Karen's closest friend. In her real life, he even managed to visit her in Denmark. The film wanted to show that mutual respect without a lot of grand gestures. The real Farah had a wife and family, so this scene was fudged a bit. We're sure it was an emotional goodbye, but it wasn't like he was exactly going to be lost without Karen around and follow her to Denmark.
KAREN: But I've gone ahead of my story. He'd have hated that. Denys loved to hear a story told well.
Right from the beginning we see how important storytelling is to her. The film seems to take the opinion that Denys was the one responsible for convincing Karen to write, though it might be more accurate to say that it helped bind her to him more closely. Because love.
KAREN: Oh, yes. He has got lovely books. Does he lend them?
BERKELEY: We had a friend, Hopworth, he'd got a book from Denys and didn't return it. Denys was furious. I said to Denys, "You wouldn't lose a friend for the sake of a book." He said, "No," but he has, hasn't he?
This is an interesting quote considering how critical Denys is of Karen and her stuff later in the film. But books were pretty valuable back then, and collections were treasured. Berkeley clearly considered Denys' reverence for his books strange.
DENYS: Did you know that in all of literature, there's no poem celebrating the foot. There's lips, eyes, hands, face, hair, breasts, legs, arms, even the knees. But not one verse for the poor foot. Why do you think that is?
KAREN: Priorities, I suppose. Did you think you would make one?
DENYS: Problem is there's nothing to rhyme it with.
DENYS: It's not a noun.
KAREN: Doesn't matter. Along he came and he did put...upon my farm his clumsy foot.
This quote is basically an English grammar joke. Karen knew the rules of poetry. Denys knew the rules of prose. They're playing with each other. Kinda cute, isn't it?
KAREN: I like my things.
DENYS: When you travelled before in your mind, did you carry so much luggage?
KAREN: A mental traveler hasn't the need to eat or sleep...or entertain.
DENYS: You're right.
KAREN: Anyway, aren't you pleased that I brought my crystal and china?
DENYS: And your stories, yes.
Denys thinks it's a little ridiculous that Karen's brought all her fancy stuff with her. But it's clear that he appreciates her storytelling skills, so he couches his critique in a compliment. (We can only imagine how awesome it was to listen to this woman tell a story.)
KAREN: Did you save my life, Finch Hatton?
DENYS: No. The lioness did that. She walked away.
KAREN: So I'm not indebted, then?
DENYS: Ah, but I am. We pay our storytellers here.
KAREN: It's lovely. But my stories are free and your present's much too dear.
DENYS: Write them down sometime.
Denys' first present is the pen, and Karen's uncomfortable with it. He convinces her to accept the gift by encouraging her to write. That's not how it happened in real life, but it makes a nice way of showing how he influenced her.
DENYS: You do stir things up, Baroness. When they said they liked to read, how did they put that, exactly? Do they know they'd like Dickens?
KAREN: You don't think they should learn to read?
DENYS: I think you might have asked them.
KAREN: Did you ask to learn when you were a child? How can stories possibly harm them?
DENYS: They have their own stories. They're just not written down.
KAREN: And what stake to you have in keeping them ignorant?
DENYS: They're not ignorant. I just don't think they should be turned into little Englishmen. You do like to change things.
KAREN: For the better, I hope. I want my Kikuyu to learn to read.
Is Karen really disrespecting Kikuyu culture, trying to make the Kikuyu into Brit wannabes? Or is she just wanting to share her love of stories? She can't imagine a childhood where you're unable to read stories. Here's another culture clash—writing vs. oral traditions.
KAREN: You're skipping verses.
DENYS: I leave out the dull parts.
Denys is right. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" has many dull parts if you don't have the Shmoop Learning Guide. Karen, the professional writer, doesn't want to skip anything.
BERKELEY: Be careful. When the old map makers got to the edge of the world, they used to write, "Beyond this place there be dragons."
KAREN: Is that where I am?
A map isn't technically literature, but it's often used to denote great peril in our society. Map makers' verbiage has crept into our every-day understanding of our world. It's also a great way to remind us that Karen is out of her element, and that she'd better keep an eye on any "dragons" that come close.
KAREN: I had been making up stories while he was away. In the evenings, he made himself comfortable, spreading cushions like a couch in front of the fire. And with me sitting cross-legged like Scheherazade herself, he would listen, clear eyed, to a long tale, from when it began until it ended.
The importance of storytelling in Karen's life cannot be overstated. She was captivating to others and considered a conversational seductress in a time when conversation was a valuable social commodity. The woman could talk. And build a sentence. And we're guess that everyone who invited her to their parties knew it.
KAREN: He began our friendship with a gift. And later, not long before Tsavo, he gave me another. An incredible gift. A glimpse of the world through God's eye. And I thought, "Yes, I see. This is the way it was intended."
Flight was pretty new at the time, so it must have really blown Karen's mind to see the world from the air. It would also seem to be the ultimate escape, although you have to land sometime.
BROR: Where would you go?
KAREN: Anywhere. America. Ceylon. I would even go to Australia. Well, perhaps not Australia. But I've got to be away from here.
Karen's desperate to get away the confines of European society. Her deal with Bror will allow her to start a business abroad, which suits her just fine, even after she finds out that the deal comes with some strings attached. And btw, what's wrong with Australia?
DENYS: It's all right to take a chance, as long as it's you who'll pay. Wouldn't you say so?
BERKELEY: It's the sort of thing you'd say.
Karen is quite literally risking her life in the wilds of the African bush. But as a girl looking to get away, she sees it as an escape from the mundane duties on the farm for an adventure of her own. Most unladylike, of course, but it's the kind of thing Denys approves. His buddy's not so sure.
KAREN: It's an odd feeling, farewell. There is some envy in it. 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. It didn't require a war. I said goodbye to Bror. Denys left without a word, which was quite proper.
Here's an example of how some things didn't change after she schlepped all the way to Africa. Men still have the privilege of freedom, while the women wait around for them. She sees this as woman's eternal role.
BERKELEY: Talk to her, will you?
BERKELEY: She could be hurt or worse.
DENYS: I imagine she knows that.
BERKELEY: Right. I tried.
DENYS: Here. Find a spot on the horizon each morning and steer by it. South, southwest. About three days.
Karen is risking her life delivering supplies to the front. Berkeley responds with a bit of chivalry, but he's barking up the wrong tree. Denys, on the other hand understands her, and decides to show her how to take care of herself rather than demeaning her with well-meaning mansplaining.
KAREN: I had a compass from Denys. To steer by, he said. But later it came to me, that we navigated differently. Perhaps he knew, as I did not, that the Earth was made round, so that we would not see too far down the road.
Karen says this right before she finds out she gets syphilis. It's an elegant reminder that there are some things that are inescapable.
KAREN: I still have your compass.
DENYS: Why don't you keep it? You've earned it. Besides, I don't always want to know where I'm going.
A compass allows you to escape but still keep your bearings. Dennis needs more radical escape, it seems.
KAREN: In the days and hours that Denys was at home, we spoke of nothing ordinary. Not of my troubles with the farm, my notes due and my failing crop, or of his, with his work, what he knew was happening to Africa. Or of anything at all that was small and real. We lived disconnected, and apart from things.
Karen and Denys weren't limited to conversation about the simple things: they could recite poetry, and debate philosophy and think Deep Thoughts. It afforded them an ideal escape from an ordinary world that they really didn't have much use for.
KAREN: When you go away...you don't always go on safari, do you? Just want to be away.
DENYS: It's not meant to hurt you.
KAREN: It does.
Karen is correct: Denys is so terrified of commitment that he takes trips just to escape from the possibility.
FARAH: Msabu's bleeding. She does not have this ox. This lion is hungry. He does not have this ox. This wagon is heavy. It doesn't have this ox. God is happy, msabu. He plays with us.
Here, we get Farah's (and by extension, the Africans') views on how much control we have over our lives: none. It's a calm acceptance that doesn't give in to despair. It's a kind of attitude that makes the situation bearable vs. believing you need to control things and being constantly frustrated.
KAREN: Doesn't it matter to you that I'm another man's wife?
DENYS: What matters to me is that you tried so hard.
It's important to Karen that Denys recognizes her commitment to behaving with honor. She couldn't save her failing marriage with Bror for so many reasons, but she gave it all she had rather than resigning herself to failure. She chose this life, and she totally owns the consequences. A man like Denys has gotta love that.
KAREN: When the gods want to punish you, they answer your prayers.
This comment comes after a long, lonely life at the farm, so we can't blame her for feeling down. When Denys offers to move in, she's conflicted. Who wouldn't be? The last guy she invited home gave her syphilis. Sure, it's what she wanted, but it's also an intrusion to her valued solitude.
DENYS: I'm with you because I choose to be with you. I don't want to live someone else's idea of how to live. Don't ask me to do that. I don't want to find out one day that I'm at the end of someone else's life. I'm willing to pay for mine. To be lonely sometimes. To die alone, if I have to. I think that's fair.
KAREN: Not quite. You want me to pay for it as well.
DENYS: No, you have a choice, and you're not willing to do the same for me. I won't be closer to you, and I won't love you more because of a piece of paper.
Denys and his commitment issues strike again—the old "just a piece of paper" line. What's truly interesting is that Karen writes something similar in her memoirs about being uncomfortable with a lot of romantic conventions. In her writing she's the one ready to accept being lonely forever. But the film reverses those roles for dramatic effect.
KAREN: If she's not important, why won't you give it up? I have learned a thing that you haven't. There are some things worth having, but they come at a price, and I want to be one of them. I won't allow it.
DENYS: You have no idea the effect that language has on me.
Karen's putting her foot down on Denys' little trip with Felicity. Apparently, Meryl Streep had a real problem delivering this line. She didn't think the character would say that, while Sydney Pollack needed it to give the conflict between the lovers some oomph.
KAMANTE: I think that you had better get up. I think that God is coming.
This is an actual line that Kamante said to Karen, according to her memoir. Kamante refers to the destructive force of the fire as God approaching. Maybe if you think of your home burning down as a sign from God, then it's easier to accept.
KAREN: All gone.
DELAMERE: How did it start?
KAREN: I think God had a hand in it. He gave me my best crop ever, and then He remembered.
It's almost Shakespearean the way that fate keeps kicking this woman. Karen endures one misery after another until we're wondering why she doesn't just drop down and die. The fire is the final disaster that leaves her bankrupt and forced to leave Africa.
DENYS: You've ruined it for me, you know.
KAREN: Ruined what?
DENYS: Being alone.
KAREN: Have I?
Denys often refers to their romance as a restriction on his freedom. Somehow Karen is responsible for destroying his ability to be the center of the universe. This line is a tease, because he has no intention of committing no matter how much he enjoys her company. Then he dies. The film's attitude towards their relationship is fatalistic: it just wasn't meant to be.
KAREN: I've got this little thing that I've learned to do lately. When it gets so bad, and I think I can't go on, I try to make it worse. I make myself think about our camp on the river, and Berkeley, and the first time that you took me flying. How good it all was. And when I'm certain that I can't stand it, I go one moment more. And then I know I can bear anything. Would you like to help me?
Perhaps this trick seems like masochism, but it's actually pretty pragmatic. Karen's using her losses as a meditation; all this suffering teaches her how incredibly strong she is. It's almost like thinking about the painful times inoculates her against future pain. Since you can't fight your fate, you might as well learn to deal with it.
KAREN: You were right, you know. The farm never did belong to me.
DENYS: I may have been wrong.
The farm seems to have a will of its own sometimes. Early on, Denys tells her that once they leave, nature will take it all back again. But when she's feeling like a total failure, this line is his way of letting her know that she's left an indelible mark on her land. And that fate didn't win every round after all.
KAREN: I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.
Karen repeats this line several times in the film, so you know it's important. It was the place where her life truly began.
KAREN: I want to see my house.
BROR: You may want to change. It's a two-hour ride.
Bror went to Kenya ahead of Karen to make arrangements and to purchase the land they were going to work, so it's not really home to Karen yet.
BROR: I didn't buy cattle. We're going to grow coffee instead.
KAREN: That's not what we planned.
BROR: You were in Denmark. I had to decide.
KAREN: We made a decision. We don't know anything about coffee.
BROR: You plant it, it grows.
KAREN: We said a dairy. My mother—
BROR: Your mother doesn't care if it's cows or coffee as long as it pays. You have to be with a herd or things go wrong. I didn't come to Africa to sit with silly cows. Just tell her we changed our minds.
Everyone knows that coffee won't grow well here, which disconnects Karen further from her new "home." It's going to be a lot harder to make it feel like home when it's totally in the wrong place to begin with.
BELKNAP: In Ohio we put up scarecrows to keep the birds away. Here, you hope there's enough leopard to keep down the baboon. They'll take your dog too. But that's Africa.
Everyone comes from somewhere. Belknap doesn't come from Africa, but he knows it pretty well by now. It's a stark contrast to Ohio, where all you have to worry about are birds.
BERKELEY: You'll need a good chat, then. Shall we stay to supper, Denys? Blix will have jackets we could use.
KAREN: Do I have anything to say in this?
BERKELEY: Not really, but we'll hear you out.
At the turn of the century, there weren't many cinemas or concerts in rural Kenya. Plus, Gilmore Girls and Snapchat were still almost a century in the future. So the colonists would have to spend time (gasp) talking to each other, and entertain themselves that way. Berkeley and Denys decide to stay for the evening, and in the process, help Karen feel like the farm is her home.
KAREN: Every time I turn my back it wants to go wild again.
DENYS: It will go wild.
Leave it to Denys to be the man of comforting words. Karen grew up in a comfortable European home. She's completely unaccustomed to the task of terraforming a wild land, but making it her own is a big step towards making it a home.
KAREN: You don't have to go. You want to go.
BROR: We've got to live here.
KAREN: They have made it plain they don't want you.
BROR: I'll have to show them where we stand.
KAREN: I'm not so fond of their empire. I'd have you shot for it.
Bror was Swedish, and Karen was Danish. Sweden and Denmark were officially neutral powers, but there was some question as to the loyalty and German sympathies of Bror and Karen during WWI. Bror's worried about that, and if they want to stay in Africa, he feels that he needs to make a public show of loyalty by joining the British men at the front. It's a political move, designed mostly to keep their home.
FELICITY: You've been round and about. Someday, I'd like to run my own show the way you do.
KAREN: Is that what I do?
FELICITY: You don't seem to need us much.
Karen really does live an isolated life. Most colonials come into town to socialize, but Karen often sets herself apart. She wasn't fond of crowds, and she was more interested in taking care of her farm. To someone like Felicity, this wild and free approach would be very attractive.
KAREN: I stayed in the room where I was born in Rungstedland, and tried to remember the colors of Africa. There was only the medicine and walks with my mother along a deserted stretch of beach, and this room in my mother's house. Denmark had become a stranger to me and I to her. But my mother's house I came to know again. And knew I would come back to it sick or well, sane or mad someday. And so I did after Tsavo.
The place that Karen had grown up in was no longer home to her after Africa. But during her long year of treatment, it became familiar again.
DENYS: Would you like…Would you like me to take you home?
BERKELEY: I am home, I suppose.
When Berkeley finally tells Denys about his illness, Denys can hardly think of how to respond. It's strange that Denys offers to take him "home"—which probably means England—when Africa is Berkeley's home now. They say home is where the heart is, and Berkeley's heart is with his Somali woman. Taking her back to England would not be an option.