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I Dreamed of Africa

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 5 May 2000

Directed by Hugh Hudson.

Starring Kim Basinger, 
Vincent Perez, Liam Aiken, 
Garrett Strommen, Eva Marie Saint, 
Daniel Craig, Lance Reddick, 
Connie Chiume, James Ngobese, 
Ian Robert.

 Written by Paula Milne and Susan Shilliday
based on the book by
Kiku Gallman.

Back on the wide screen after winning her Academy Award a few years back for L.A. Confidential, Kim Basinger has selected a biographical project to showcase what is assumed to be an honest attempt to demarcate actress-defining moments, be it battling invasive elephants, elusive poachers, or knuckle-headed screenwriters. Unfortunately, she has chosen…poorly. Her new “star vehicle” is a breath-taking but lackluster effort that will barely whimper out of the box office, its death exacerbated by the implosion of anecdotes and expected slaying by the sword of Gladiator and it’s armies to the north. No great white goddess she.

For director Hugh Hudson it’s been a long road back to profitability, and it will stretch a little further when the final tally is in on this turgid passionless travelogue. Chariots of Fire, his enthralling 1981 debut feature set in the 1924 Summer Olympics, earned more than $100 million in the United States, adjusted for inflation. His sophomore, Africa-themed production, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, made about two-thirds that amount in current dollars. Again, not shabby. His subsequent three films nose-dived: Revolution (1985), Lost Angels (1989), and My Life So Far (1998) barely grossed a cumulative $2 million in this country. Hudson’s adrift on the Dark Continent again, searching for the holy box office grail, yet instead finding that I Dreamed of Africa offers up a rainbow but no pot of gold -- only lead.

Based on Kiku Gallman’s 1991 autobiographical book, screenwriters Paula Milne and Susan Shilliday (Legends of the Fall) have seemingly compressed her text into a series of exotic animal scenes, stunning landscapes, majestic sunsets (all set to Maurice Jarre’s lavishly overdone score), and an inflated story delivered with enough wood to build the second Ark. Not a bad idea considering the plethora of flamingoes, hippos, giraffes, birds, gazelles, lions, thirteen-foot pythons, and other indigenous creatures depicted. Perhaps this film would have been better conceived as a Discovery Channel or National Geographic special.

Belonging to the school of patchwork filmmaking, Africa offers up an endless series of disconnected sequences strung together by stilted voice-over witticisms (“I am at peace.” “I am alone.” “He is my son. He is my friend.”) plucked from Kiku’s diary. I lost track of the requisite, derivative montages: Arrival in Africa, Discovery of Dead, Poached Animal Carcasses, Native Children Frolicking, Rebuilding the Ranch, Shooting the Dog Off Screen, Playing in the Surf, Jeep Stuck in the Mud, Windstorm Destroys the Ranch, ad nauseum. These would each devour a few minutes of screen time, lurking the story forward. Two hours later, you’ll be hackneyed to death.

Of course the whole project has that “been there, done that” feeling. The film begs to be compared to Out of Africa, and the likening is in name only. Basinger and her European co-star Vincent Perez (The Crow: City of Angels, Indochine) can’t hold a candle to Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Too bad someone didn’t realize before the cameras rolled.

Kuki, an insecure divorcée, and her irresponsible lover Paolo get hitched in Venice after a horrific car accident sidelines her for months of introspection. The golden-haired bride’s dowry includes a then seven-year-old son (Liam Aiken and, ten years later, Garrett Strommen) and her own memories of wonderful stories of the African veldt as a child. Leaving behind security, civilization, all her friends, reason, and a semi-overbearing mother (Eva Marie Saint), the threesome hightails off to a rural, ramshackle part of Kenya for what is supposedly “a fierce, passionate love story about the universal desire to discover adventure, lose one’s inhibitions and meet the challenges of life.” Some people can find the same thing by looking in their neighbor’s window, which certainly would have been more entertaining.

Kuki’s character, which allows Basinger several hanky-drenching scenes as tragedy beckons, yet never fleshes out the stick figure mold, while Perez doesn’t register with his weak role. Their relationship isn’t believable; it feels manufactured, especially when the now-noted conservationist delivers a limp confession to her mother “I love him mother. I really do” with as much emotion as air. Bernard Lutic’s lush cinematography is the only positive thing this overblown melodrama has going for it. I’d opt for a nice picture postcar

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