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Friday, May 5, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Short on character, passion, ideas, `Africa' leaves too much in a dream

Special to The Seattle Times

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XX "I Dreamed of Africa," with Kim Basinger, Vincent Perez, Eva Marie Saint. Directed by Hugh Hudson, from a script by Paula Milne and Susan Shilliday, based on the book by Kuki Gallman. Several theaters. 112 minutes. "PG-13" - Parental guidance advised because of nudity/sensuality and some violent/traumatic episodes.

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Equal halves nature travelogue and survival story, "I Dreamed of Africa" tells us both more and less than we want to know. It's neither epic enough to fulfill a grand scope, nor intimate enough to be an overpowering emotional experience.

Moreover, it's a missed opportunity as a piece of storytelling and cinema. The story is based upon the experiences of Kuki Gallmann (Kim Basinger), a woman who moved her family from Italy to Africa with aspirations of self-rediscovery and eventual dedication to social and ecological causes. It's an incorrigibly earnest production, saturated with some pretty images of the African landscape (from cinematographer Bernard Lutic), agreeable scoring by Maurice Jarre, and a screenplay that fails to generate story interest or genuine power.

Basinger, an Academy Award recipient for "L.A. Confidential," plays Gallmann. At times she is effective, but she is mostly stiff in a role that requires a level of passion and gusto crucial for the character to connect with the audience and bring the material to life.

Spanning several years, the film opens with a near-death experience that motivates Kuki into achieving meaning in her life. She settles down in Kenya with her new husband, Paolo (Vincent Perez), and son from a previous marriage (played as a child by Liam Aiken, as a teenager by Garrett Strommen), against the wishes of her mother (Eva Marie Saint). What follows is an odyssey similar in spirit to Sydney Pollack's "Out of Africa," but lacking in satisfying character development.

Upon settling, Paolo soon proves to be an unreliable husband and father, engaging in daily exploits with a group of hunters. The first half of the film details the adjustment the family makes in its new home (building the ranch, dangerous encounters with animals, separation from loved ones, etc.) while the plot goes on auto-pilot in the second half.

The film hints at a more intriguing subject: Kuki's relations with natives and how disturbed she is by the slaughtering of animals for their ivory. Nothing substantial comes of this topic (Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" is far more impressive as nature epic and narrative, and provided a meditation on how the sheer beauty of the Earth can transform the human spirit).

Although some individual shots are pleasing to the eye, the film doesn't incorporate the beauty and mystery of the great continent into its story. Too much of the action is confined inside and around the family's ranch. Although Basinger's facial expressions do communicate her character's joy and anguish adequately, the picture fails to generate sentiments of awe, wonderment and mystery that are crucial for the audience to find entry.

A continual problem lies in the screenplay, which doesn't fully exploit Gallmann's achievements as a human being and environmentalist. Her major achievements are mentioned only in the titles preceding the closing credits. There aren't any ideas to really think about, any issues dealt with above the level of a TV movie.

The narrative is a mess, shifting between scenes that skip several years and fail to fill in the time gaps, or answer basic questions about character motivation and plot developments, disrupting the continuity of the story, as if large portions of the screenplay are missing.

Instead of divulging the process that Gallmann underwent to achieve her goals, director Hugh Hudson ("Chariots of Fire") plays it safe. Unlike its heroine, "I Dreamed of Africa" doesn't have the passion - or the vision - to achieve any meaning of its own.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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