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Babe of the Bush: Kim Basinger models a rancher's chapeau as wildlife conservationist Kuki Gallmann.

Dream On

'I Dreamed of Africa' offers dreamy scenery but little drama

By Nicole McEwan

'SOMETIMES THE ADVENTURE OF A LIFETIME becomes life itself." So goes the tagline of I Dreamed of Africa, the latest entry in a recent cavalcade of films whose mini-genre might labeled: Lost Women Trying To Find Themselves In Exotic Locales. From Hideous Kinky and Holy Smoke to Anna and the King, this rather undistinguished list demonstrates what goes wrong when the landscape becomes a more compelling personality than the lead character.

Directed by Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire) and adapted from wildlife conservationist Kuki Gallmann's best-selling memoir, this languidly paced travelogue attempts to describe one woman's voyage into the very heart of darkness. It's too bad (yet somehow fitting) that her inner journey is so hopelessly obscured by Africa's natural grandeur; though this places the emphasis on the country Kuki so clearly worships, it makes for a rather dull expedition.

As films like Out of Africa demonstrate, jungle-envy is a decidedly patrician obsession. Read any urban newspaper and you'll quickly discover that the poor find enough hair-raising adventure and daily challenge in their natural environment. For the middle-class, Disneyland's Wild Safari generally suffices. Besides, only the rich are dumb and bored enough to lay their lives on the line for the thrill of it. Everest, anyone?

Gallmann's decision to pack her young son up and move to Kenya comes after she survives a near-fatal car crash. Afraid that she is "no longer growing," she follows her handsome new husband (Vincent Perez) to his 90,000-acre ranch in rural Kenya. Once there, the Italian expatriate finds glory in the wilderness (Bernard Lutic's masterful camera captures many an awe-inspiring vista).

Unfortunately, there's something heavy-handed in Basinger's performance. In her first role since winning Best Actress for L.A. Confidential, the Southern-bred beauty valiantly strives to break out of the glamour-girl mode. Unfortunately, Paula Milne and Susan Shilliday's solemnly worded script doesn't provide the ammunition. Even scenes of animals attacking seem more like Wild Kingdom outtakes than the stuff of human drama. And with the exception of a comical scene in which Gallmann chases a stray elephant from her garden, we rarely witness the spontaneous joy such unusual surroundings provide.

In truth, Basinger's flawless skin and stunning bone structure may be her own worst enemy. Unlike Meryl Streep and Glenn Close, she's tough to dress down. As a result, she looks more like a woman emerging from a day spa than one engaged in a struggle for survival on the fringes of civilization. Also picture-perfect is the depiction of the (wealthy, white) Gallmanns' relations with the indigenous population. Some sense of racial context and history might have added layers to a rather flimsy setup.

Of course, Gallmann's Eden is not without its snakes--and as I Dreamed of Africa moves on to its ultimately inspiring conclusion, we learn how Gallmann's personal tragedy fueled her much-lauded conservation efforts. Unfortunately, all the panoramic bombast that proceeds this epiphany results in a leaden melodrama which is more stillborn than Born Free.

I Dreamed of Africa (PG-13; 112 min.) directed by Hugh Hudson, written by Paula Milne and Susan Shilliday, based on a memoir by Kuki Gallmann, photographed by Bernard Lutic and starring Kim Basinger, Vincent Perez and Eva Marie Saint, opens Fri at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the May 4-10, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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