I Dreamed of Africa is a perfect title for this film, because it’s as much about the idea of a place as the place itself. For Kuki Gallmann (Kim Basinger), Africa represents a physical and spiritual Eden, where she can create a new kind of life with her second husband, Paolo (Vincent Perez), and 7-year-old son.
After growing up in an Italy of manmade splendors (as epitomized by Venice), Gallmann is awakened only after Paolo buys the Ol Ari Nyiro Ranch in Kenya, a rural locale whose majestic vistas thrill them even as the nighttime wildlife sounds initially frighten her.
With the restless Paolo increasingly off on extended trips and her beloved son, Emmanuel, in boarding school, Kuki is forced to rely upon herself and learn to understand the harsh vacillations of an Africa she comes to consider her true home. What’s interesting about Gallmann’s real-life tale (as filtered through the screenplay by Paula Milne and Susan Shilliday) is that the story becomes about one woman’s personal transformation through her relationship to the land.
Yet I Dreamed of Africa is completely devoid of discussions of race, politics or nationalism, and even the timeline when most of the action takes place (roughly the 1950s and ‘60s) is never mentioned. Director Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire, Greystoke) is much more interested in exploring the natural world than human relationships, and the film is decidedly Kuki-centric, with everyone else merely existing in her orbit.
But this flawed film carries within it a rich and complex performance from Basinger, who proves her work in L.A. Confidential was no fluke. The camera is rarely off her, and she seems to bloom like a transplanted flower which finds essential nourishment in foreign soil.
To its credit, I Dreamed of Africa doesn’t portray Gallmann’s journey as blissfully idyllic. There’s a price to pay for the choices she makes, and it’s all there in the expressive landscape of Basinger’s face.
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