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'I Dreamed of Africa'

Kenya dreamin': Beauty and danger live side by side in 'I Dreamed of Africa'

Friday, May 05, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

I don't know about you, but if I lived on a remote ranch in Kenya and kept antivenom serum in my fridge, I'd sure know how to use it.

'I Dreamed Of Africa'

RATING: PG-13 for a brief scene of nudity-sensuality and some violent, traumatic episodes.

STARRING: Kim Basinger, Vincent Perez

DIRECTOR: Hugh Hudson


CRITIC'S CALL: 2 1/2 stars


But when a poisonous snake strikes and Kuki Gallmann finds herself in a life-or-death situation, she doesn't know how to proceed. "What do I do?" she pleads in a panic, realizing the stakes have never been higher.

The improbably named Kuki Gallmann (played by Kim Basinger) is a real person, and "I Dreamed of Africa" is her story.

Based on her autobiography, it is an inherently dramatic tale of an Italian socialite and divorced mother who moves to a cattle ranch in Africa with her 7-year-old son and second husband. She soon finds herself battling poachers, poisonous snakes, elephants that invade her garden, fierce lions that lurk outside her home, loneliness, uncertainty and the sorts of tragedies that would level a lesser woman.

"I Dreamed of Africa," which inevitably will be compared to the superior "Out of Africa," opens in Venice where Kuki, a friend named Paolo (Vincent Perez) and a handful of others are in a serious car accident. "Everyone tells me I'm lucky to be alive," says Kuki, whose leg is broken and face bruised. "I'm afraid I'm only a dreamer who hasn't the courage to change."

But she finds the courage after falling in love with Paolo, who treats her son, Emanuele, as if he were his own. Against the advice of Kuki's cautious, cultured mother (Eva Marie Saint), the new family moves to Africa and settles on Ol Ari Nyiro, a 100,000-acre cattle ranch. Even as the trio soak in the wildlife splendor, they also see the ravaged carcass of an elephant, stripped of its precious ivory.

In voiceover narration, Kuki says she's never been to Africa but feels as if she's returned. "I am at peace," she concludes, thereby tempting the gods to destroy that peace.

The movie so clearly telegraphs the potential dangers -- almost providing us with a checklist of things to fear -- that we know tragedy must be lurking around the bend. We wait for it to arrive, and it does. Many a melodrama has sent me digging into my purse for tissues, but this (oddly) did not. I never felt a real connection with these characters.

"I Dreamed" also never establishes a clear timeline, but the real Kuki moved to Africa in 1972. Maybe that explains her vacillation between an independent woman who can dig a dam, literally, and a whiny wife who criticizes Paolo for not communicating with her during a 10-day trip. She is a woman caught between two eras.

This is Kuki's story but she remains something of a mystery. Her journal entries sound like greeting-card sentiments: "I am surrounded by Africa. I am surrounded by life." Yes, but how do you really feel about being out in the middle of nowhere? What drew your father to Africa? How do you cope with the near-constant threat of death? Why don't you just get the heck out of there? How do you manage not to age a day, when a decade has passed?

"I Dreamed of Africa" boasts a heartfelt, convincing performance by Basinger, her first since her Oscar-winning turn in "L.A. Confidential," and a charismatic Perez. Young Liam Aiken and Garrett Strommen share the role of Emanuele and bear a physical resemblance to Basinger.

Hugh Hudson ("Chariots of Fire") directs "I Dreamed of Africa," which is all about passion -- for family, for Africa, for forging a new life, for wildlife conservation -- but surprisingly passionless. It also fails to put the poaching problem into perspective; that might have lent more urgency to the cause.

All of the effort seems to have been focused on getting to remote, picturesque locations and capturing them. In that regard, it's too much about the filmmakers' journey and not enough about Kuki's.

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