Based on the autobiography of wildlife activist Kuki Gallmann, I Dreamed of Africa concerns a wealthy Italian divorcee who forsakes her palatial estate and pampered lifestyle to follow her new husband to Kenya to start a cattle ranch. Paulo (Queen Margot's Vincent Perez), whose sweetness and gentleness mask a restless energy and deep hunger for adventure, leaves his wife and young stepson Emanuele (Liam Aiken, as huggable as he was in Stepmom) for long stretches.
Kuki is upset by her husband's frequent absences but rises to the challenge, learning to drive a tractor, build dams, chase away marauding lions, and working tirelessly to stop ivory poachers who are decimating the elephant and rhino herds. Her greatest worry, always, is the safety of her husband and son. Emanuele -- played as a teenager by newcomer Garrett Strommen, who gives the film's most natural and affecting performance -- exhibits the same indifference to danger that his stepfather does.
Kuki is transformed by life in Africa, not only becoming self-reliant but also experiencing a sense of freedom and joy she has never known. Her growth, however, is tested by an almost Kennedy-esque cycle of tragedy. How she deals with these dark episodes -- and manages to not lose faith -- is the crux of the story.
The first hour of I Dreamed of Africa is distressing to watch. While the actors bear some responsibility for their stilted, unconvincing performances, the real culprits are screenwriters Paula Milne and Susan Shilliday, who shamelessly feed melodramatic lines to most of the cast. A car accident at the beginning of the film puts Kuki in the hospital, where Paulo visits her.
Paulo: "Are you in pain?"
Kuki, grimacing in agony: "Not too bad."
Paulo: "Nurse, she's in pain. Please do something!"
What could any actor do with such drippy dialogue? When Kuki tells her young son that Paulo wants them to go to Africa with him, the boy is hesitant. Kuki explains, "I've stopped growing." Now is that really something a mother would say to her 8-year-old son? As if a child that age would have the slightest idea what she was talking about.
Almost no one emerges from the script unscathed. Perez and Eva Marie Saint, as Kuki's mother, are as awkward as Basinger. And the decision to present Basinger and Saint as Italian -- as their real-life counterparts were -- is a big miscalculation. Both women speak with their normal American accents (where is Meryl Streep when you need her?) and nothing about either one seems remotely European, especially not Saint, who comes across as quintessentially American.
Alternating between touristy shots of cities and generically lush countryside, the entire Italian sequence -- some 30 minutes of screen time -- feels like a travelogue. Things don't get much better when the action shifts to Africa, where the landscapes are a bit too self-consciously epic and the score swells in grandeur whenever the Kenyan plains pop into view. The lack of emotion brought about by this overwrought music is surprising; it was composed by Maurice Jarre, one of our great film composers, whose credits include Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Witness, and The Professionals. Here, however, the music is terribly heavy-handed -- as well as uncomfortably reminiscent of the composer's earlier work.
Despite what amounts to a thorough trashing of the movie thus far, it must be noted that the film does improve in the second half. Basinger's performance, in particular, takes flight. She suddenly appears more comfortable, relaxed. The result is an admirably credible performance. She proves particularly adept at conveying a sense of numbing grief while enduring the tragedies that befall her family. Supporting performances are good throughout. Strommen is so appealing he deserves a second mention, while Lance Reddick brings tremendous dignity and understated emotion to his role as Simon, a local tribesman who works for the Gallmanns.
While a certain tension underlies the film, this is due primarily to the dangers associated with the locale -- animals, poachers, the elements -- rather than any sense of pacing achieved by director Hugh Hudson. In fact, after a certain point the story doesn't move forward at all; events, reactions, and emotions just seem to repeat themselves. Hudson has always been an uneven director -- his credits include the Academy Award-winning Chariots of Fire as well as Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Revolution and the slight but charming My Life So Far -- and I Dreamed of Africa will do little to alter that reputation.