I Dreamed of Africa: Hugh Hudson Directs Kim Basinger

After reaching a career impasse with the disastrous Revolution and the hardly-seen Lost Angels, Brit director Hugh Hudson rebounds with I Dreamed of Africa, a visually gratifying but dramatically weak film that falls short of its aspiration to be a sweeping romantic epic a la Out of Africa, to which it bears some thematic resemblance.

In her first role after winning an Oscar for L.A. Confidential, Kim Basinger renders a dominant performance as Kuki Gallmann, the true-life heroine whose fascination with the magic of Africa led to an adventurous journey of self-discovery and commitment to social causes.

Columbia should expect modest returns for a spotty picture that has a dense plot but lacks modulated characterizations or interesting point of view to elevate it above its exotic travelogue nature. Following its American bow, pic goes to Cannes as closing night of Certain Regard, which should increase its international profile.

Storytelling has never been the strongest suit of Hudson, who made an auspicious debut (and only decent pic to date) with Chariots of Fire, an absorbing drama about ambition and bigotry in the 1924 Summer Olympics. New film, which is based on Kuki Gallmann’s 1991 book, takes Hudson to Africa, the site of his second movie, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. Not surprisingly, I Dreamed of Africa suffers from the same problems of that 1984 film: massive physical undertaking, monumental but rigid visual style, literate and pretentious narrative, and lack of distinctive perspective to illuminate the proceedings.

The yarn begins in Italy, when Kuki (Basinger) and friends drive back from a late-night party and becomes victims of a freak accident. Severely injured, Kuki is sent to the hospital, where she’s regularly visited by her 7-year-old son, Emanuele (Liam Aiken), and her snobbish mother, Franca (Eva Marie Saint). Through voice-over narration, that periodically punctuates the story, it’s disclosed that Kuki is a young divorcee utterly devoted to raising her son, yet something major is missing from her routine existence: excitement and a sense of fulfillment.

As a child, Kuki’s father used to tell her wondrous stories about Africa, which fueled her imagination. The time seems ripe now for a change, as she says: “This is my chance to find a new meaning in life.” Her aristocratic mother objects, but joining her in the adventure is Paolo (Vincent Perez), the man who drove the car the night of the accident, who after brief courtship marries her and becomes the custodian of her son.

The main story is told against the magnificent backdrop of Africa’s mythical beauty and unresolvable mystery. At first, Kuki is in awe of Nature, utterly transformed by the sense of freedom the wide Kenya landscapes inspire in her, but soon difficulties arise. Paolo is a loving hubby but he suffers from that chronic male problem: Lack of commitment and responsibility. He goes on wild hunting trips with his buddies, leaving Kuki behind, never knowing when he’ll back. A whole reel recounts Paolo’s departures and returns, ceaseless bickering and reconciliations which often end with sex. It doesn’t take long and Paolo gets killed in an accident, forcing Kuki to face the first of many future defeats.

Playing a role similar to Redford’s white hunter in Out of Africa, Perez’s character is underdeveloped and so is the part of Kuki’s son (played as an adolescent by Garrett Strommen). An adventurous youngster, who cultivates a special passion for snakes, he’s conflicted whether to go to an American college and leave his mother behind. It doesn’t take long for him to get bitten by a poisonous snake and to literally die in the arms of his devastated but helpless mother.

The film’s second half is all plot machinations, giving the impression of a novel being compressed into a two-hour visual format. There are detailed accounts of building a ranch in the wilderness, visits by Kuki’s mother, ceremonial funerals and mournings by the locals, etc. It’s the kind of picture in which Paolo says he would like to have a daughter, and in the very next scene Kuki is in advance pregnancy.

Intended or not, Kuki’s part echoes other femme-centered African travelogues: Meryl Streep in Out of Africa and Sigourney Weaver in Gorillas in the Mist. Like Weaver, who embodied the late anthropologist Dian Fossey in her heroic struggle to save Africa’s gorillas from poaching, Kuki eventually becomes, as is revealed in end credits, an “internationally respected conservationist.” And like Streep’s Danish novelist Isak Dinesen, Kuki’s urge to record her experiences is stirred by Africa’s grandeur; Basinger, like Streep, gets to chase a lion away from her land.

Banal as the film is, it gives Basinger a role of stature and intelligence. I Dreamed of Africa registers as a one-woman show, with Basinger, who’s in every scene but two, admirably holding the entire picture together. Boasting extremely appealing looks–highglighted by Shirley Russell’s couture–Basinger excels as a woman who’s determined to lose all of her Western inhibitions and prevail against all odds. Indeed, despite endless setbacks, failures and deaths, Kuki’s feeling that Africa is the only place for her never falters.

In his second American part, French star Perez looks handsome, but fails to impress dramatically, and lack of chemistry between him and Basinger makes things worse. As Kuki’s son, Strommen acquits himself slightly better, though other thesps, Lance Reddick as Gallmans’ helper, Daniel Craig as the land manager, and Ian Roberts as distant neighbort, are hindered by one-dimensional parts.

The picture’s lack of dramatic rhythm and narrative continuity is exacerbated by Scott Thomas’s rough and chopped editing. Lenser Bernard Lutic, Hudson’s longtime collaborator, provides on-location (film was shot in the Zulu Nyala Game Reserve and Kenya’s Ol Ari Nyiro Ranch) visuals that are beautiful in the manner of National Geographic.

Maurice Jarre’s swollen score offers effectively moody emotional support that’s not always found in the writing.