Published May 01, 2000Why don't people specify countries when they're talking about Africa, even though it's as huge and diverse as a continent can get? You'd never see Good Morning, Asia or North American Beauty, but throughout this film, you keep hearing the word Africa mysteriously substituted for Kenya, where the film actually takes place. This to me smacks of the imperialist mindset that set up Africa as the "dark continent" in the first place and then set out to colonise and "civilise" it. And that mindset, in a subtler form, is remarkably and disturbingly present in Hugh Hudson's (Chariots of Fire) new film I Dreamed of Africa.
Based on the autobiographical book of the same title by Kuki Gallmann, I Dreamed of Africa follows Kuki's (Kim Basinger) trials and tribulations after moving with her husband and son to a ranch in Kenya to escape their boring, privileged lives in Italy. The family is happier than ever in the new environment, despite the many hardships they undergo, but eventually personal tragedy strikes Kuki's life. The rather offensive premise that the film is based around is that as Kuki finds her personal paradise, Africa exerts its toll on her in the form of these tragedies: blaming Africa instead of, or at least for, the recklessness of her loved ones. The Dark Continent strikes again. And for a film about Africa, it is utterly amazing how absent the Africans themselves are. Sure, they are there to help build the house and tend the land and generally serve the Gallmann family, and there are some dealings with a tribe down the road whose leader talks about how much the European missionaries taught him when he was a boy, and of course there are the evil poachers that Kuki has to fight off, but that's about it. The Gallmanns mostly hang out with and endless series of big game hunting, private plane-flying white folk and send their son off to a British-run prep school where he can learn to play cricket.
Aside from all of these colonialist overtones, the film just isn't very good. The script is heavy handed with stilted dialogue and laughably earnest narration. (My favourite? "I was alone... yet I was not alone. I was surrounded by Africa.") Kim Basinger is wooden and one-dimensional, never seeming to change or age despite the fact that the film is about her transformation as a person over the course of many years. There are jarringly abrupt leaps forward in time (up to ten years at one point) that the film doesn't really account for and all of the family's struggles are glossed over too quickly to really have any impact. The only really redeemable things about this film are the fine performance by Liam Aiken (who plays Kuki's seven-year-old son and blows Kim Basinger off the screen every time they have a scene together), and the sweeping, mainly gratuitous shots of the majestic scenery and exotic animal life that are so stunning they can almost distract you enough to make the rest of the film bearable. Almost.