Heritage

Karen Blixen story on the silver screen again

museum

The Karen Blixen Museum. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG

A new Canneseries production, The Dreamer-Becoming Karen Blixen has just been released in a World Premier telling the story of one woman’s struggle to find her place in life while freeing herself from the expectations of family and society.

The series takes place in the 1930s and follows Karen Blixen’s return to her childhood home in Denmark after many years in East Africa. Penniless, sick, divorced and with her dreams in ruins. The series shows Karen’s journey from her lowest point to becoming a renowned writer.

Developed from a concept by Connie Nielsen (Wonder Woman), The Dreamer begins when Karen nears the end of her tether, economically and emotionally bankrupt after her farm fails and her soulmate, English aristocrat Finch Hatton, dies in an air crash near Voi.

She is contemplating suicide but is saved by her brother who ships her back to the family manor in Rungstedlund, north of Copenhagen where the series recounts how Baron Blixen, a member of Kenya’s European high society becomes Karen Blixen, a world-famous writer.

The Dreamer begins with a voiceover from Connie Nielsen reading in beautifully cadenced Danish, a letter Out of Africa author Karen Blixen writes to her mother in 1931. In it, she expresses the joy Africa has given her, that the family farm she ran has gone bankrupt, and she will soon take her life.

Exquisite shots of Africa play out, meanwhile, on the screen.

It is in this lush and highly romanticised period detail, big production value, a harder economic edge and sustained portrait of a woman’s sentiments and soul, through read letters, dialog confession that Nielsen reveals a deeply conflicted Karen Blixen.

Karen Blixen wrote dozens of works, including short stories, poems, plays, and essays. According to her biographer Donal Hannah, Karen’s attitude to life shaped her work. The characters in her books are stylised to their roles because accepting one’s role in life is key to finding purpose.

Karen began writing as a child. She told Hannah that she and her siblings acted out some of her work, like The Marionette Plays. One of them in particular, Sandhedens Hoevn (Revenge of the Truth, published in 1926), shows that Karen was preoccupied with the idea of fate and a person’s role early in life.

In the story, the plot turns the children into marionettes. Then a witch casts a spell so that “any lie they tell becomes the truth.” Unable to accept their given role, the characters have to accept their new reality and make the best of it. In Out of Africa she applied this role to herself.

Although Karen often wrote under a pseudonym, Isak Dinesen being her most frequent choice, she wrote Out of Africa under Karen Blixen. The book was her memory of the 17 years she lived in Africa as a coffee plantation owner Baroness Karen Blixen Finecke. For those years, Karen’s role in life changed.

Out of Africa offers a record of her time in Kenya, detailing her relationships with her lovers, servants and 2,000 “natives” who lived on her farm.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the famous Kenyan writer, is on record as saying, “As if in compensation for unfulfilled desires and longings, the baroness turned Kenya into a vast erotic dreamland in which her several white lovers appeared as young gods and her Kenyan servants as usable curs and other animals.”

Carey Baraka writing in The Drift says, “She imagines herself to be judge to the Kikuyu squatters on her farm, claiming at one point that she looks at her cook “with something of a creator’s eyes.”

To Karen, the Africans existed if not quite at the level of the bush animal, then somewhere just above them. She believed that “the umbilical cord of nature has, with them, not been cut through.”

After Karen Blixen left Kenya in 1931, Jean Remi Martin, a visionary young banker in town bought the farm and named it Karen Estate carving it into 20-acre parcels for sale.

Karen Estate soon became the preserve of the European adventurer, those who loved the wild outdoors, living where giraffes, lions, leopards, and the antelope family roamed freely.

Karen Blixen’s early life was strongly influenced by her father’s relaxed manner and his love for the outdoor life and hunting. After conceiving a child out of wedlock with his maid Anna Rasmussen, he was devastated because he had broken his promise to his mother-in-law to remain faithful to his wife.

He hanged himself on 28 March 1895 when Karen was only nine years old, and her life changed significantly after her father’s death.

The latest offering on Karen Blixen reveals a society woman humiliated in many ways in life, talented but scorned, sensitive and a bit too dreamy. A woman desperately seeking purpose in life, willing to go to any length to find herself.