Dreaming Of Africa And The Villa

Murder suspect John Mark Karr listens during an extradition hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2006. Karr waived extradition Tuesday and will be returned to Boulder, Colo., where he is charged with murdering JonBenet Ramsey a decade ago.
AP Photo/Mario Anzuoni
This week John Leonard reviews Up at the Villa with Kristin Scott Thomas and Sean Penn and I Dreamed of Africa with Kim Basinger.
Bad things happen to beautiful women in both of the well-bred movies I went to this week so that I wouldn't have to choose sides between Time-Warner/AOL and Walt Disney/ABC.

And then the oddest thing happened in the dark.

Maybe because both movies begin in northern Italy - in Venice and in Florence with a lot of Renaissance frangipani - I confused them. Suddenly, Kim Basinger was wandering around the palazzo under a full moon, with a dead body to get rid of. And Kristin Scott Thomas was an antelope in Africa.

In Hugh Hudson's I Dreamed of Africa, Kim is a single mother who leaves Venice after an auto accident, to start all over with Vincent Perez on a ranch in Kenya, where she will suffer almost as much as her mother, Eva Marie Saint, said she would. There's the weather. There are poachers. There are snakes. And there's the dilatory drag of the movie itself, slower than sap.

On the other hand, we also get a Great Rift Valley and the sort of wildlife/dreamscape Africa that causes most of us to break out in poetic pimples - and causes Kim to squint into the camera like a supermodel stoic and speak to us in voice-over baby talk.

I Dreamed of Africa is based on the autobiography of Kuki Gallman, who went on after so much death to convert her ranch into a wildlife reserve, and to meddle in the politics of post-colonial Kenya - but all this is omitted from the movie because it might actually be interesting.

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Up at the Villa, where Kristin Scott Thomas gets into so much trouble, has been adapted by Philip and Belinda Haas from a Somerset Maugham novella in which, under a Tuscan sun, they would really rather not be interesting, because they're English.

Kristin is a widow languishing in a borrowed villa outside Florence in Mussolini's Italy, between expat dinner parties presided over by Anne Bancroft, who for some reason is a princess.

James Fox wants to marry Kristin and take her off to India. Sean Penn just wants her, because he's American.

She will sleep instead with Jeremy Davies, because he's aAustrian refugee who can't play the violin.

But when she decides that once is enough, sensitive Jeremy shoots himself. And dithering Kristin and smirky Sean, both of whom have peanut butter for brains, play hide-and-seek with the body, while fascist cops jackboot after them through five centuries of gaudy art.

Now suppose Kim was hanging around Florence at the time of Munich. Mussolini would've have loved her. Whereas the very English Kristin really belongs in Kenya, where MI5 tried to scare the Mau Mau by poisoning their sacred baobab tree. Sean Penn must always have wanted to play Hemingway. And one can easily imagine a poached Anne Bancroft.

Or why not save my time by combining both films into one, A Villa in Africa, in which Kim and Kristin leave Italy together - a powerful sisterhood - to dig up bones of early Seans in Olduvai Gorge; to dream our African beginnings on a Stone Age toenail or a tooth, before there were movies as silly as these two?