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I DREAMED OF AFRICA

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kim Basinger, Vincent Perez, Liam Aiken, Eva Marie Saint
Director:  Hugh Hudson
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer, Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  115 Minutes
Release Date:  August 29, 2000

Film ***

Director Hugh Hudson has proven himself a master at capturing experiences without telling a real storyóat least not in the traditional sense.  His previous picture, My Life So Far, is one of the best films I can remember about growing up, and it expressed it by showing a collection of memorable episodes without a structural plot to hold it all together.

For his latest film, I Dreamed of Africa, he takes us on an extraordinary journey with extraordinary people, and lets us share in what happened to them on this adventure.  For a while, I looked for plotóthere seemed to be indications here and there of one developing.  Was it about those who loved the land versus the ever present poachers?  Was it about European outsiders versus the beautiful but foreign land they invaded?  Was it about conflict within the main charactersí family?  There were elements of all of these, but none of them was singularly the point.  The point was simply a vivid recollection of an amazing experience.

Kim Basinger shines in the best performance Iíve ever seen from her as Kuki Gallmann, the real life woman on whose book the film is based.  Sheís a single mother, alone with her child Emanuel (Aiken), whose life takes a dramatic turn after a horrific car accident leaves her hospitalized with a broken leg and other injuries.  She begins to assess her life, and feels itís been going nowhere.  After her recovery, and to the amazement of her mother (Saint), she accepts the proposal from her lover Paolo (Perez):  marriage, and moving to Kenya.

There have been many true life adventures told of white European settlers who abandon all and take up life in Africa (Isak Denisonís Out of Africa being one of the best).  After all, land was fairly cheap, and life could be self sustaining, provided people were willing to work said land.  But mostly, I think, they came to shrug off the mantel of mundane living and to embrace the exotic, the dangerous, and the unknown. 

The one juxtaposition that Hugh Hudson consistently brings to his picture is the idea of beauty coexisting with danger.  The land looks like a gorgeous paradise, yet death is all around.  Living amongst the wild animals can be wondrous (as when an elephant helps himself to Kukiís vegetables, then wanders off sheepishly when she yells at him) to the terrifying, as when a lion threatens their home, and kills the family dog with one swipe of its paw.  We see a beautiful rainfall, and marvel at the distant rainbow that splits the gray, foreboding sky right down the middle, but soon we witness the horrors of a vicious wind storm that leaves the farm crippled.

This concept of ever-present death appeals to Paolo, who canít quite explain his fascination for it to his wife.  Life in Africa is simply about the moment, he tells her.  One brief lapse in concentration at any time, and it could be over in a heartbeat.  We even wonder if their son is beginning to embrace that way of living.  He develops a fascination with catching and collecting snakes.  At first, only benign ones, but later, against his motherís wishes, he begins to harbor poisonous ones as well.  So while his father enjoys the dangers of the hunt, young Ema finds his own niche of African life.  One lapse of concentration, and it could be all over for him as well.

Even quiet, unassuming scenes take on that extra element of danger.  When their truck gets stuck in the mud, Kuki, her mother, and Ema make the four kilometer journey back home on foot.  Nothing happens.  Later, Paolo points out their footprints to Kuki:  a lion had been following them the whole time.

As mentioned, Kim Basinger delivers her strongest performance ever.  She is an actress with some mettle, and she delves into the heart of this woman and brings everything back out of her.  But her surrounding cast is equally good and up to the challenge.  A personal pet peeve of mine in movies is cute kids who canít really act, but young Liam Aiken doesnít fall into that category.  I was impressed with him in Stepmom, and Iím equally enthused with his work as young Ema in this picture.  Perhaps my most pleasant surprise was the excellent work of Vincent Perez as PaoloóI had not seen him since his awful turn in The Crow:  City of Angels, but with this film, he can finally put that to rest.

Some critics have dismissed this film, and I think thatís a shame.  True, thereís no sense of a real plot or a singular conflict to drive the story from beginning to end.  For some films, thatís a definite problem, leaving you feeling the director didnít really know what story he wanted to tell.  In Hudsonís case, itís a conscious choice.  His film is about real life, and life in and of itself is rarely plot driven, or guided by a singular conflict.  There is much to be enjoyed, much to be feared, much happiness and sorrow together, and thatís really whatís at the heart of his movie.  I can at least venture this much of an opinion:  I was never bored.

Others have complained about the insensitivity of releasing a film about life in Africa without addressing any of the terrible contemporary crisis that continent and its people are facing.  Itís an issue of timing, I suppose, and certainly not the fault of the story the film was based on.  If Out of Africa had been released today, would it have met with the same politically induced lukewarm reception?  One can only wonder, and as for my part, I prefer to judge the movie the filmmakers WANTED to make, and not speculate about whether or not they should have tried to make a different one based on extenuating circumstances.

Other comparisons to Out of Africa are inevitable, I suppose, and few films can hope to measure up to that one.  But I Dreamed of Africa takes on a slightly different feel in its breath and rhythm, particularly in the sense of realism the picture brings.  The African life is only romanticized so far before quickly becoming grounded again.  Kuki Gallmann, in other words, is not the poet that Isak Denison was, but for that, we get to take a look at this exotic land not through the eyes of a lyrical romantic, but through the eyes of a simple yet extraordinary mother, wife, and woman.

Video ***

I only watched the widescreen version of the movie, but this anamorphic transfer, after a shaky opening 20 minutes, becomes extraordinarily beautiful.  The first part of the movie, which takes place in Italy, suffers from the worst evidence of compression, with a little bit of haziness to some of the darker images and occasional instances of shimmer.  Colors are a bit muted, most noticeably lacking a sense of true blacks, and images are generally somewhat soft looking.  Then the movie shifts to Africa, and there are no further complaints.  These scenes are gorgeously rendered, with a wide array of colors and much better sharpness and detail.  Darker scenes in Africa hold their own well against their sunlit counterparts, and the color range becomes truer and more natural looking.  Itís as if someone in charge of the transfer decided to put the squeeze on the lesser important Italian scenes for the salvation of the African ones, and if the choice needed to be made, it was the correct one.  My personal wish, however, is that Columbia Tri Star might cease offering the extra full-frame presentation on films with a 2.35:1 ratioópartly because too much image is sacrificed in re-shaping the picture, and also because a film of about two hours like this one should enjoy the benefit of a dual layered disc.  I believe that alone could have earned this DVD a four star imageóbut thatís just my opinion.

Audio ****

What a wonderful 5.1 soundtrack!  For starters, the score by Maurice Jarre enjoys a wonderful presentation hereóduring the stronger moments, the orchestration opens up across both front and rear stages for a full listening experience.  The subwoofer gets its share of work, too, with the musicís lower ranges and occasional strong percussion.  As for the rest of the film, rear channels are accessed constantly for ambience, including animal sounds, water noises, and wind and other weather effects.  Given that most of the picture takes place outdoors and in an extraordinary natural setting, the audio accentuates the listening experience perfectly.  Dialogue is mostly mixed across the front channels, and is always clear and cleanly presented.  For a non-action film, this is as good and lively a digital soundtrack as you can hope to have.

Features **1/2

The disc contains a short but interesting making-of featurette, with cast and director interviews and a few good stories told (which made me long for a commentary track, because I have a feeling there was more to tell!).  There is a trailer and some talent files, which are poorly doneófor example, Hugh Hudsonís selected filmography lists only two of his seven movies, and also indicates Chariots of Fire as ďOscar NominatedĒ AND ďAcademy Award NominatedĒ, like they were two different things!  As a bonus, there is an isolated music score, which is not listed on the box, however, the box DOES list production notes as a feature, and there are none.

Summary:

I Dreamed of Africa is a wonderful, beautiful, and engrossing picture that deserves a much better reputation than what most critics have given it so far.  Superbly acted, sumptuously photographed, and masterfully directed, this is the kind of film that exists not to tell you a story, but to share an experience with you.  Itís about three remarkable people and how they lived, and it allows you to see the beauty and danger of Africa through their sometimes sentimental, sometimes painful, but always truthful eyes.