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We open with wealthy Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) at a shooting party in Denmark. She proposes marriage to her aristocratic but financially-challenged friend (and second cousin, as it turns out), Baron Bror von Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer), who makes her a Baroness and whisks her away to Kenya to run a dairy farm.
So far, totally normal, right?
Except—psych—he actually has a coffee plantation (which she knows nothing about) instead of a dairy farm (which she does). Bror has a habit of disappearing for months on end, which is majorly uncool for a new groom. While he's out and about, she becomes friends with Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford), the local Great White Hunter who seems to, uh, appreciate her a little more.
Despite Bror's generally jerky qualities, he and Karen stay close. When he's in town, that is. Then the roof caves in—one of several roofs, actually—when he reveals that he has syphilis from all of the who knows how many women he's been sleeping with, and has given it to her.
Happy anniversary, babe.
So she's back to Denmark for some treatment, because syphilis in 1914 could literally drive you insane. Bror, whom she has miraculously not impaled on a pike for doing this to her, stays behind to keep an eye on the farm.
When she gets back, he pretty much picks up where he left off. Thanks to the lovely STD he gave her, she can't have kids anymore. What's a girl to do? Boot her husband out the door and open up a school for the locals, that's what. While she's doing that, Denys comes around more and more. Even though the plantation runs into trouble, who cares when you've got Robert Redford whispering sweet nothings to you by firelight in the hills?
Turns out, Denys is almost as bad as Bror—just a different kind of cad. He moves his stuff into her house, but he goes off hunting for months on end. While that's better than cheating on her, it doesn't leave much Us Time, which is all the woman really wants. When Denys wants to take a mutual female friend with him on safari, Karen once again has to kick a man out of her house.
Then, just when the farm is finally starting to work, a fire wipes the whole thing out.
Know what, though? She doesn't just break down and die like any sensible person would. She sells all her stuff and gets ready to head back to Denmark. When she's getting ready to leave, Denys shows back up to wine and dine her before flying off again. A few days after that, he dies in a plane crash, severing her last link to Africa and sending her back home to Denmark for good.
The good news is, she stored all those experiences up and used them to help become one of the most renowned authors of the 20th century. Maybe suffering really is good for the soul—especially when you're as tough as Karen Blixen.