Some movie lines stay with us forever. For example, who can forget Meryl Streep, as Danish author Isak Dinesen, intoning the words "I had...a farm...in Af...rica" in Out of Africa? Those emphysemic pauses took my breath away. Of course, "plantation" would have been a better word for what Dinesen had in Africa, but "farm" scanned better, I suppose. I should point out that I loved Out of Africa when I first saw it--the scenery, Streep's acting, the sheer romance of a woman pitting herself against an entire continent. Today, I'm a little more sensitized to the plight of what Dinesen used to call "my natives," who were forbidden to own land in British East Africa. It's not just that Out of Africa moves white people to the foreground and black people to the background, but that it seems oblivious to having done so--this in 1985. Personally, I look forward to the day when a movie comes out called Stay Out of Africa. I Dreamed of Africa is not that movie. On the contrary, it's like an updated remake of Out of Africa--so much so that you have to keep reminding yourself it's based on real life. Kim Basinger stars as Kuki Gallmann, a well-off Italian woman who, bored with la dolce vita, takes up residence on a 100,000-acre cattle ranch in the Laikipia region of Kenya with her handsome new husband and a son by a previous marriage. To say that Africa doesn't agree with them is to miss the whole point of the movie; they love the place. But if Isak Dinesen had had to go through half this stuff she would have high-tailed it back to Denmark and hid under the covers. Lions in the field, elephants in the garden, snakes in the grass and poachers wherever tusks are sold--Kuki has her hands full when it turns out her husband, like the men in Dinesen's life, can't be counted on to hang around the house. "It's a different rhythm here," she keeps getting told.
But the same old story, I'm afraid, and it's told so poorly that I nearly dozed off when Basinger delivered a second funeral oration, the first one having exposed her limitations as an actress--the nothing voice, the deer-in-the-headlights face. She put these to good use in L.A. Confidential; here, she lets her hair do her acting, curling and straightening it to express her moods. It was perhaps wise of Basinger not to attempt an Italian accent, but that only widens the gap between her and Streep, who had the time of her life chewing on Danish. Basinger's Kuki doesn't seem truly inspired by Africa, but then neither does the movie. Director Hugh Hudson, who gave the Tarzan myth a fashion-mag gloss in Greystoke, seems to have forgotten how to put together a scene; the movie is strangely inert. We didn't really need another story about a white woman who finds herself on the Dark Continent, and we haven't really gotten one.