Lovely to look at, but ho-hum as a drama

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``Out of Africa'' is a splendid example of that persistent genre, the coffeetable movie. It's big, beautiful, and imposing. But there isn't much to it, and pretty pictures -- replacing ideas, not supporting them -- are its only real attraction. Unlike a coffeetable book, moreover, it can't be thumbed through in a few minutes. You have to gaze at it for 21/2 hours, during which not much happens. I hasten to add that some spectators will love ``Out of Africa'' precisely for its relaxed pace, its restrained performances, and its romantic notions of life and love. I even agree with these viewers, to a point. Few recent movies have operated so boldly on the principle that grown-up films can proceed in a grown-up manner, free of frantic editing and high-tech hoopla. And the pictures certainly are pretty, shot by master cameraman David Watkin with a crispness and clarity unsurpassed by anything on-sc reen today.

These attributes aside, though, my basic response to ``Out of Africa'' is a reluctant ho-hum. Economy, ingenuity, and dramatic energy are virtues, too, and I saw little of them in the picture.

``Out of Africa'' is based on writings by and about Karen Blixen, who spent years running a coffee plantation in British East Africa before returning to her native Denmark, taking the pen name Isak Dinesen, and becoming a celebrated author. The plot focuses on her relationship with Denys Finch-Hatton, a British loner who became her closest friend when her marriage to Baron Blixen went sour. The suspense of the story, mild as it is, grows mostly from their involvement: Will they fall in love? Will they s leep together? Will they get married? Other angles include Karen's struggle to keep the plantation going and a bout she has (mostly off-screen) with venereal disease.

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This material could have been absorbing if it were explored in depth. But the movie is obsessed with more superficial matters. The true subject of ``Out of Africa'' is Meryl Streep looking just swell; the secondary subject is Robert Redford looking just swell; and to these themes the filmmakers bend their mightiest efforts.

The stars pose untiringly with rifles and lions and such, and the camera worships them. It's lovely to look at, and if you're a big fan of Streep or Redford, you'll find this the movie of the year. But the ponderous pace and relentless pictorialism of the film attenuate its feelings. Also absent is the high literary quality one might hope for in a film on a famous writer. At one point Karen starts to spin a spellbinding yarn -- only her voice fades out, the music swells, and we're back with nothing but those pretty pictures again!

Mention must also be made of the film's subtle, and probably unconscious, racial insensitivity. It was one thing for the real Baroness Blixen to set up a benign colony in 1914, perform occasional services like gunning down a dangerous beast or dispensing some European-style medicine, and congratulate herself on her ``discovery of the dark races,'' as she put it in her own ``Out of Africa'' memoir. But it's different for a sophisticated mid-'80s movie to treat the troubled ``dark continent'' as nothing m ore than a picturesque backdrop for the romantic travails of two white folks. In real life, Redford is known for a concern with native American problems, and his character does make a halting statement about white arrogance and African integrity. But this isn't much out of 150 minutes, especially when the same character is literally struck dumb when he learns that a fellow Britisher has fallen in love with a Somali woman.

In sum, ``Out of Africa'' is a winner if judged by beauty alone. But a deeper, more intelligent film could have emerged from this visually striking cocoon. Sydney Pollack directed from a screenplay by Kurt Luedtke. The PG rating reflects some sex, a little vulgar language, and the episode about the baroness's illness.

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