I Dreamed of Africa
Screenplay : Paula Milne and Susan Shilliday (based on the book by Kuki Gallmann)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Kim Basinger (Kuki Gallmann), Vincent Perez (Paolo Gallmann), Liam Aiken (Emanuele, at 7), Garrett Strommen (Emanuele, at 17), Eva Marie Saint (Franca), Daniel Craig (Declan Fielding), Lance Reddick (Simon), Connie Chiume (Wanjiku)
Playing real-life conservationist Kuki Gallmann in "I Dreamed of Africa" is Kim Basinger's first role since winning the 1997 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for "L.A. Confidential." Following up an Oscar is a dangerous time for some actors because they get too confident in their ability to raise sub-par material with their acting prowess (for instance, Louise Fletcher followed up her Oscar-winning role in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" with "Exorcist II: The Heretic," a move from which her career never quite recovered).
"I Dreamed of Africa" probably looked great on paper: Basinger gets to play a strong, willful woman who outlives just about everyone around her; she gets to play the range of emotions, from despair to exultation to righteous anger; and she gets to play an animal rights activist, which, according to news articles, she believes to be her destiny as an actress. Unfortunately, the resulting film is a protracted, tedious docudrama that's long on pathos and short on narrative interest, and it never makes Kuki Gallmann into a truly interesting character.
This is a shame because, in every article I've read about Gallmann, she sounds like a fascinating person. Born into Italian wealth and privilege, she was badly hurt in a car wreck in which her future second husband, Paolo (Vincent Perez), was also involved. Told she would never walk again, Kuki persevered and eventually married Paolo, who was a restless adventurer. In 1973, they moved with Kuki's 7-year-old son from a previous marriage, Emanuele (Garrett Strommen), to the Ol Ari Nyiro ranch near the Great Rift Valley in Kenya. It is here that the majority of the film slogs along while documenting their life amid the dangers of Africa.
Unfortunately, on screen, Kuki never truly comes to life as the extraordinary person she is made out to be in news articles. This is not so much the fault of Basinger's performance as it is the script by Paula Milne ("Mad Love") and Susan Shilliday ("Legends of the Fall"), which was based on Gallmann's best-selling autobiographical book. The script deals much less in character development than it does in disasters and tragedies.
Rather than truly exploring Gallmann's growing love for Africa (the best we get are some stilted voice-over narrations), the film documents one tragedy after another, starting with the deadly car wreck in Italy, and then moving to Africa to include a buffalo attack, a lion attack, a highway robbery, a killer windstorm, two major deaths in the family, cattle disease, and a string of poachers. Granted, all of this probably happened (the opening title card reminds us, as if we didn't already know, that this is "A True Story"), but it shouldn't be the focus of the film.
Africa herself is meant to be a character with which Gallmann and her family interact, but we never get that in a visual sense (hence, the need for the lousy narration). Director Hugh Hudson, who scored big with 1981's "Chariots of Fire" and then all but decimated his career with the 1985 disaster "Revolution," seems lost in the story. He and cinematographer Bernard Lutic fill the screen with glorious, sweeping panoramas of the African wilderness, but they don't seem to know how to make the landscape more than just postcard-pretty. What the film really needed was a director like Terrence Malick, whose three films, "Badlands" (1973), "Days of Heaven" (1978), and "The Thin Red Line" (1998), were brilliant at merging the landscape with the characters, making them part of each other.
You can sense that this is what Hudson would like to do, but he can't seem to pull it off. Maybe it's because Basinger simply looks too pretty all the time: For a rancher in Africa, her hair always looks like Paul Mitchell himself just washed and styled it. Or, maybe it's because Gallmann's character development is never made clear. When and why is it that she gives herself over to "the Dark Continent" and makes it her life's passion? In the film, it feels more like Gallmann is simply tolerating her life in Africa rather than embracing it, and the disparity between those two positions makes all the difference in the world.
©2000 James Kendrick