For a good hour or more, I Dreamed of Africa had me confused. The film is based on the 1995 memoir of Kuki Gallmann (Kim Basinger), a wealthy young Italian woman who marries an Italian adventurer (Vincent Perez) and goes, with him and her 7-year-old son, to live on a decrepit ranch in Kenya.
Once there, they battle elephants (wow!), struggle with cyclones that destroy everything (yikes!), capture poachers (pow!). So why, despite these exciting incidents, gorgeous scenery and a good soundtrack, did I keep looking at my watch?
At first I thought it might be the acting. Kim Basinger is strangely stilted in the first half of the film, especially when dealing with the young actor (Liam Aiken) who plays her son, Emanuele. She had no grace at all with the child, as if just being around a kid made her uncomfortable. But, after Emanuele grows up in the second half of the film Basinger's acting got better, so it wasn't that causing my watch watching.
Then I thought it might be the writing. Writer Paula Milne (who also has written for the legendary BBC soap opera Coronation Street) didn't seem to know how to get the characters in and out of a scene, and the actors kept saying irrelevant things like "keep them moving" in the middle of a cattle drive. They'd speak their piece then the film would cut to another equally exotic location where the characters would say another few awkward lines.
Scene after scene was simple exposition -- here's a scene to tell you I'm going to Africa, now I'm telling you I'm going hunting, now I'm warning you not to touch dangerous snakes. Finally, I figured it out: the dialogue is expository and awkward because there is no conflict at the heart of I Dreamed of Africa. There is no conflict in the film because I Dreamed of Africa isn't a story, it is a biography. And therein lies the problem.
No matter how exciting, our lives are plotless. In a real life, one action does not inevitably lead to another as it does in fiction. In a well-crafted story, the onset of a cyclone is the act of a creator leading her characters to greater and greater conflict that must be resolved. In real life, well, a cyclone sucks, but then you get over it and the next disaster befalls you.
The creators could have taken liberties with Kuki Gallmann's life and made a real story out of it, but they chose mostly to stick to the facts. For me, at least, this explains the episodic nature of I Dreamed of Africa: it is a set of independent events, some of them terribly interesting in their own right, but none of them inexorably leading to a climax.
Since there's no real internal conflict in the film, there isn't really a climax, but at the end, there is a good payoff for all the exposition in the first two thirds of the film -- Africa exacts a terrible price from Gallmann for her successes on the ranch, and her story is ultimately quite tragic. But, as a dramatized biography, even with elephants and cyclones and poachers most of I Dreamed of Africa can't approach the emotional impact of a really good yarn about a woman in a Laundromat.