Cinema: Where the Wild Things Were Out of Africa

Directed by Sydney Pollack Screenplay by Kurt Luedtke

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He appears first as a silhouette on the African horizon, the dying sun behind him, the very emblem of romantic heroism, standing easy in a lost world. She appears at first in dream-tossed sleep, reinventing him and reimagining the landscape that shaped their love in ways that are perhaps immeasurable.

He is Denys Finch Hatton, aristocrat, aviator and athlete, war hero and white hunter. She is, when we meet her, Isak Dinesen, storyteller. But before that she was Baroness Karen Blixen, who in 1913-14 exchanged family money for a title, a farm in Kenya and the 17 years of experience that, distilled to its essence, would form the basis for one of this century's truly singular literary compositions, Out of Africa.

As Dinesen's eloquent biographer, Judith Thurman, puts it, Finch Hatton "was so precious that he is mentioned sparingly" in the book. He is there as a man who comes and goes at the wayward bidding of his own enigmatic spirit. But at least he is present. Dinesen's husband Bror Blixen, the amiable decadent who brought the writer to her great subject, is never mentioned at all. With his debts and his womanizing and, ultimately, his syphilis, he is too coarse for the rarefied atmosphere she created.

It always seemed, indeed, that her work, so dependent for its haunting power on the tonalities of her prose, at once intensely specific and mysteriously reticent, was too fine for the narrative demands of the screen. Out of Africa is a memoir and a collection of tales. But it is also an anthropologist's notebook, a naturalist's diary and a mystic's ruminations. And, yes, a duplicitous fiction in which time is compressed and rearranged, incidents conflated. The narrator granted herself a serene distance and freedom from quotidian concerns. How do you get all that into a movie and fulfill an audience's expectations for the form?

The answer turns out to be simple: Make bold with the material, taking care only to retain its important truth, which is an emotional one. This has been accomplished in two ways. The film's viewpoint is not the writer's, who in effect saw her subject from the air. The camera is firmly on the ground, looking for close-ups. The movie's manner is not the author's either. It is concerned with restoring what she left out: factual (as opposed to spiritual) biography of a conventional kind, drawn from Thurman's book, a study of Finch Hatton's life and Dinesen's letters, which are altogether more open than her book. Where the documents fail him, Screenwriter Luedtke improvises plausible fictions to fill the dramatic gaps. In the process he provides Director Pollack and his actors with still other elements that Dinesen ignored, a coherent overall story line and well-shaped scenes that are mostly playable in crisply minimal dialogue.

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