I DREAMED OF AFRICA was Kim Basinger’s return to the screen after three years off since scoring an Academy Award for her fine supporting performance in L.A. Confidential. That 1997 hit came when she’d likewise taken another three-year break after being nearly the only good thing about Robert Altman’s fashion industry snore Ready to Wear. During that decade, a world away from the glitz & glamour of moviemaking, conservation activist Kuki Gallmann wrote a number of best-sellers about her experiences in Kenya. When Basinger staged her return, playing the author in the 2000 adaptation of Gallman’s first book, she felt she’d picked another winner, and during the course of the $50,000,000 production was—as happens to so many who’ve been there—utterly captivated by Africa. No doubt she was crushed, then, by the disastrous response, which not only failed at the box-office but was almost universally panned by critics. Worldwide grosses scratched just $14,400,327, with less than half the tally coming in the States, where it crept into 136th place.
Recovered from a terrible car crash, Kuki (Basinger), a divorced Italian socialite with a young son, takes a gamble on marrying charming acquaintance Paolo Gallmann (Vincent Perez) and moving in 1972 to Kenya, where they set out to repair, manage and defend a remote, ramshackle cattle ranch on the edge of the Great Rift Valley. Over a decade of adjustments and trials, they face dangers from weather, wildlife and poachers. With all its rewards, the exotic and challenging life exacts a tragically high price. *
We can’t speak for the 1991 book, but the basic story—along the lines of Out Of Africa, but with even more trauma—is compelling; but the surefire material got frustratingly flat cinematic handling by fumbling the script, direction, editing, scoring, even the cinematography. Location filming was done in Italy (Venice), at Gallmann’s acreage in Kenya, and in South Africa’s more logistics-favorable province of KwaZulu-Natal. Somehow Bernard Lutic’s camera does little justice to the surroundings, with the best shots—still rather postcard’y material—coming from the aerial unit handled by Adam Dale.
The script is weak—blame for that can be laid to Paula Milne and Susan Shilladay. The editing is choppy, with episodes either undeveloped or just set up and then left too abruptly. Much fault lies with director Hugh Hudson, who imparted little spirit, adding yet another big-budget debit to his resume (recall his failed Revolution). Apart from the bracing car crash at the beginning, most of the vignettes that are poised to be exciting—a windstorm, a lion confrontation, arguments, lovemaking, bad news—are all oddly subdued. Perez apparently was supposed to be a guy to set hearts aflutter: you’d have to look elsewhere prove it. The boy, Enamuele, is played as a child by Liam Atkin (later in Road To Perdition), as a teenager by Garrett Strommen, debuting at 17: neither do more than place-hold, likely due to direction, script and editing more than a lack of effort from the kids. The veteran Eva Marie Saint is on hand as Kuki’s mother: it’s nice to see her, but she’s given little chance to do much with the character other than look concerned.
Basinger was 47 (granted, in a you-should-only-hope way), whereas Gallmann (also a beauty) was 29 when she moved to Kenya. She has a few scenes to really let go in—and delivers anguish so raw you’ll shiver—but too often is left adrift by her director and the writing: her voice-over intonations of what are presumably Gallmann’s words (or the screenwriters version?) don’t convey much.
Aside from Kim’s few passages where she can really unlimber, the one member of the cast who makes a solid impression is Daniel Craig, 31 and diligently working his way up the ladder: as the ranch foreman, he invests his handful of scenes with a relaxed and rangy energy that would eventually pay off big (and repeatedly save us all).
Sadly, yet another discordant note—‘notes’, as it were—comes from Maurice Jarre’s sappy score, the final theatrical film assignment for the composer. A few insertions of African chorales do what they can, but the orchestral work is perhaps the least-inspired of Jarre’s career. Just plain bland.
Aside from Craig, in the barely sketched supporting cast there is a small role for Lance Reddick, who’d later do justice by The Wire and John Wick. 114 minutes.
* Kuki Gallmann’s life took hammer blows most of us could not hope to weather with such grace and resilience. Her vast array of conservation work leaves a remarkable legacy. In 2017, at 74, she was seriously wounded by tribal militia.