After reaching a career impasse with the disastrous “Revolution” and the little-seen “Lost Angels,” Brit director Hugh Hudson rebounds, to an extent, with “I Dreamed of Africa.” Visually gratifying but dramatically weak, the film falls short of its aspiration to be a sweeping romantic epic a la “Out of Africa,” to which it bears some thematic resemblance. Starring Kim Basinger in her first role after winning an Oscar for “L.A. Confidential,” densely plotted picture lacks modulated characterizations, and never establishes an interesting point of view to elevate it above its exotic travelogue nature. Columbia should expect modest returns domestically; following its American bow, pic goes to Cannes as the closing-night screening in Un Certain Regard, which should increase its international profile.
Storytelling has never been the strongest suit of Hudson, who made an auspicious debut with “Chariots of Fire,” an absorbing drama about ambition and bigotry in the 1924 Summer Olympics (and his best pic to date). 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: rigid visual style, literate and pretentious narrative and lack of a distinctive perspective.
Basinger dominates the proceedings as Kuki Gallmann, the true-life heroine whose fascination with the magic of Africa led to a journey of self-discovery and commitment to social causes. Her story begins in Italy, when Kuki and friends are driving back from a latenight party and become 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 periodic voiceover narration, it’s disclosed that Kuki is a young divorcee who’s devoted to raising her son yet feels that excitement and a sense of fulfillment are missing from her routine existence.
As a child, Kuki’s father used to tell her wondrous stories about Africa, which continue to fuel her imagination. She decides the time is ripe for a change. 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, and who marries her after a brief courtship.
Main story is told against the magnificent backdrop of Africa. At first, Kuki is in awe of nature, transformed by the sense of freedom the wide Kenya landscapes inspire in her, but soon difficulties arise. Paolo is a loving but not always responsible hubby. He goes on wild hunting trips with his buddies, leaving Kuki behind with no idea when he’ll be back. A whole reel recounts Paolo’s departures and returns, their ceaseless bickering and the reconciliations that often end with sex. Soon enough, Kuki must face the first of many defeats.
Playing a role similar to Redford’s white hunter in “Out of Africa,” Perez is saddled with an underdeveloped character. The part of Kuki’s son (played as an adolescent by Garrett Strommen) is similarly lacking in depth.
Pic’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 mourning by the locals. 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 the advanced stages of pregnancy.
Whether intentional or not, Kuki’s part echoes Meryl Streep’s portrait of Isak Dinesen in “Out of Africa” and Sigourney Weaver’s turn as Dian Fossey in “Gorillas in the Mist.”
Banal as the film is, it gives Basinger a role of stature and intelligence. Pic registers as a one-woman show, with Basinger, who’s in every scene but two, admirably holding together the movie. Boasting extremely appealing looks — highlighted by Shirley Russell’s costumes — Basinger excels as a woman who’s determined to lose 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 is handsome, but fails to impress dramatically, and the lack of chemistry between him and Basinger makes matters worse. As Kuki’s son, Strommen acquits himself slightly better, but other thesps — Lance Reddick as Gallmann’s helper, Daniel Craig as the land manager and Ian Roberts as a distant neighbor — are hindered by one-dimensional parts.
Pic’s lack of dramatic rhythm and narrative continuity is exacerbated by Scott Thomas’ rough editing. Lenser Bernard Lutic, Hudson’s longtime collaborator, provides on-location visuals (film was shot in the Zulu Nyala Game Reserve and Kenya’s Ol Ari Nyiro Ranch) that are beautiful in the manner of National Geographic. Maurice Jarre’s score offers effectively moody emotional support that’s not always found in the writing.