the author of I Dreamed of Africa
(2000), Kuki Gallmann
From the opening swells of Maurice Jarre’s lush orchestration to the sweeping pictorial grandeur of the final shot, I Dreamed of Africa is a throwback – an old-fashioned yarn depicting the adventures of beautiful white people against an exotic and perilous backdrop (in this case, Kenya). In her first role since winning an Academy Award for L.A. Confidential, Kim Basinger stars as real life wildlife conservationist and author Kuki Gallman, who left a life of privilege in Italy to join her husband on his family ranch in the African plains. I Dreamed of Africa features lion attacks, snake bites, sandstorms, car accidents, evil poachers and breathtaking vistas – in short, all the makings of a rousing romantic epic. So why is the movie such a snooze?
We are introduced to Kuki as she is riding home from a party with friends. As a pregnant woman in the back seat announces, "It won’t be long now," we see the approaching headlights of a truck in the distance. It doesn’t take Nostrodamus to predict where this is heading (many equally portentous examples of foreshadowing occur throughout the film). After the ensuing car accident, Kuki determines to shake up her life and find some meaning. Befriending and eventually falling in love with Paolo (Vincent Perez), the driver of the car during the accident, Kuki packs up her young son Emmanuel (Liam Akin) and ditches her well-appointed Venice digs for the wilds of Africa, where "life has a different rhythm" (as we are told several dozen times).
Upon arriving at the ranch, Kuki quickly learns that her African paradise will not be all that she dreamed. While her free-spirit husband spends days at a time off hunting and fishing with his buddies, Kuki struggles to get the homestead in shape. Setbacks include a lion attack on the family pet and the encroaching presence of poachers in the surrounding area. Eventually, Kuki grows to love her adopted home, refusing to leave despite the deaths of several loved ones (giving Basinger not one but two weepy funeral scenes) and the pleas of her patrician mother (Eva Marie Saint).
As it has in movies like Cry Freedom and A Dry White Season, the usual colonial viewpoint prevails. A few feeble stabs are made at turning the native Kenyans into flesh-and-blood characters, but they are essentially background scenery, just as much as the rolling hills and shimmering rivers. Instead, we are treated to noble white saviors, taking a heroic stand against the evils of killing elephants for their ivory. Truly the sun never sets on the British Empire.
Director Hugh Hudson has maintained a low profile of late, but in his 80’s heyday he specialized in the sort of stiff upper lip cinema pioneered by David Lean and carried on by Richard Attenborough. Chariots of Fire won Hudson international acclaim, while the ill-fated Revolution, starring Al Pacino, left his career in ruins. With I Dreamed of Africa, he presents an inert simulacrum of an epic; every frame of the movie appears to have been dipped in formaldehyde. From Basinger’s wooden line readings to the plodding, compulsory quality of so many of the scenes, Hudson has constructed a handsomely mounted production with no spark, no texture, no life. And even the production value is at times sub-par; in particular, the picture is marred by some truly shoddy computer generated animals. Herds of elephants, giraffes and wildebeest appear, all of which look better suited to last year’s animated Tarzan movie than a realistic depiction of African wildlife.
The film struggles to end on a triumphant note, but it will likely fail to ring true for many in the audience. The real life Kuki Gallman may indeed feel that the tragedies that befell those around her served as ennobling, character-building epiphanies for herself, but her silver screen counterpart seems to be suffering from a serious case of denial – straining to transform wishful thinking into a good old-fashioned Hollywood ending.