Based on the autobiography of wildlife activist Kuki Gallmann, I Dreamed of Africa concerns a wealthy Italian divorcée who forsakes her palatial estate and pampered lifestyle to follow her new husband to Kenya to start a cattle ranch. Paolo (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 at a time.
Kuki is upset by her husband's frequent absences but rises to the challenge, learning to drive a tractor, build dams, and chase away marauding lions and working tirelessly to try 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 before known. Her growth, however, is continually tested by an almost Kennedyesque cycle of tragedy. How she deals with these dark episodes -- and manages not to lose faith -- is the crux of the story.
The first hour of I Dreamed of Africa is so bad it is painful to watch. While the actors certainly bear some responsibility for their stilted, unconvincing performances, the real culprits are screenwriters Paula Milne and Susan Shilliday, who feed shamelessly melodramatic lines to just about everyone. A car accident at the beginning of the film puts Kuki in the hospital, where Paolo visits her.
Paolo: "Are you in pain?"
Kuki, grimacing in agony: "Not too bad."
Paolo: "Nurse, she's in pain. Please do something!"
What could any actor do with such drippy dialogue?
When Kuki tells her young son that Paolo 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 eight-year-old son, especially back in the early 1970s when the film opens? 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 always comes across as so quintessentially American. It's also confusing for viewers, who can't help but wonder why these women are living in Italy.
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 music doesn't help matters any, surprising considering that it was composed by Maurice Jarre, one of the great film composers of all time; his 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. For reasons that remain unclear, the actress suddenly appears more comfortable; she almost visibly relaxes on screen. The result is an admirably credible performance from this point on. (Perhaps the film was shot in sequence and the actress simply worked through her early jitters.) She proves particularly adept at conveying a sense of almost numbing grief in the face of 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 ever-present dangers associated with the environment -- animals, poachers, the elements -- rather than any sense of pacing achieved by director Hugh Hudson. In fact the story doesn't move forward at all after a certain point; 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.