I DREAMED OF AFRICA
Review by Michael Jacobson
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.