Calling out around the world—Berlin, Tokyo, Sydney, and yes, Cardiff—are you ready for a brand-new beat? Well, actually, it’s not all that new. Whether it’s called rave, techno, or whatever, it’s more than a decade old. What’s sort of new is the attempt to capture the music’s robotic cadence—and the blissed-out scene that goes with it—on celluloid. Human Traffic accepts the challenge, but its triumph is that it doesn’t try to be triumphant. Recasting Trainspotting and Go without their desperation and death, 25-year-old Justin Kerrigan’s feature debut aspires to be A Hard Day’s Night on E—but sometimes settles for being contemporary South Wales’ answer to Beach Blanket Bingo.
In recent years, Cardiff has emerged as one of Britain’s second-tier music centers, home to Catatonia, Super Furry Animals, and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. The Welsh capital qualifies as the setting for Human Traffic, however, simply because it’s Kerrigan’s hometown. This is his story, and if it’s not a pretty one, it’s also not especially alarming.
Jip (John Simm) and his friends Lulu (Lorraine Pilkington), Koop (Shaun Parkes), Nina (Nicola Reynolds), and Moff (Danny Dyer) work dead-end jobs and live for the weekend. That means dancing to rave music while on Ecstasy, although pot, speed, cocaine, and beer are by no means proscribed. (Welsh pot smuggler Howard Marks, a U.K. cult figure, even makes an appearance to discuss “spliff politics.”) Despite moments of cosmic wonder occasioned by modern-day psychedelics, the movie’s demimonde isn’t far removed from the pill-popping subcultures of Absolute Beginners, Quadrophenia, and other British youth-culture flicks set in eras before Kerrigan was born.
Getting to the dance floor is the essential goal, and in one scene Jip bluffs his way into a sold-out club as if admittance were the grail itself. (The club owner is played by DJ Carl Cox, another celebrity cameo.) Once the kids are in, though, there’s not much for Kerrigan to do, so they’re soon out again and on their way to a party, which offers the possibility of dialogue. The subjects include getting high and coming down, of course, but also sex. Lulu could really go for Jip, but they’ve been Just Friends for so long that romance seems impossible. Koop and Nina love each other, but their relationship is threatened by Koop’s possessiveness. Moff, a drug dealer who
happens to be a police official’s son, prefers to jerk off. Jip tends to be impotent at awkward times, perhaps because he’s disgusted and angry that his mother is a prostitute.
That last bit is altogether too heavy for a movie that’s so amiable about its gripes that even its tasteless scenes—and there are some—evaporate like soap bubbles. Human Traffic is fast, blithe, and playfully self-conscious: It features almost as many songs and nearly as many speeches delivered directly to the camera as High Fidelity, and it includes a nod to Clerks as well as a direct reference to Trainspotting. (Kerrigan is apparently staking his claim as a member of the International Pop-Prole Underground.) Modern Brit kids’ unabashed celebration of drug use may shock some buttoned-down Yanks, and Moff’s scratch mix of his family’s dinner-table chatter will mystify the pre-hiphop generation. Still, the movie’s basic attitude would make sense if you replaced the principal actors with the Dave Clark Five and called the result Having a Wild Weekend.
In contemporary big-budget movies designed for the international market—of which Titanic is merely the most prominent example—dialogue is not a priority. Danger and romance can be conveyed without words, so the actors are often left mouthing catch phrases in a manner better suited to farce. That’s what happens in I Dreamed of Africa, a film in which people are forever telling heroine Kuki Gallmann (Kim Basinger) that Africa has “a different rhythm” than uptight Europe. This is doubly ironic. Not only has Kuki moved to Kenya from Italy, not exactly the most hectic of European countries, but she’s at the center of a movie that itself has absolutely no rhythm.
I Dreamed of Africa was adapted from Gallmann’s autobiography, so scripters Paula Milne and Susan Shilliday can argue that it was fidelity to the material that caused the movie to be so choppy. But it’s director Hugh Hudson who fails to give the material a smooth trajectory, presenting the adventures of Kuki, her new husband, Paolo (Vincent Perez), and her son, Emanuele (played by Liam Aiken at 7, Garrett Strommen at 17), merely as a string of disasters and near-misses. There are recurring motifs—Kuki and Paolo’s tangles with poachers, Kuki’s distress over Paolo’s tendency to roam, Emanuele’s reckless fascination with dangerous snakes—but they don’t really promise anything other than more nasty incidents.
There’s one difficulty with the fidelity-to-text argument for why the film is a narrative muddle: It’s so obviously modeled on Out of Africa, Sydney Pollack’s lush 1985 treatment of Isak Dinesen’s memoir. Like that movie, this one is set in Kenya and swoops deliriously through the fecund veldt when not telling the story of a plucky European woman and her unreliable husband. Although Gallmann’s tale is less romantic than Dinesen’s—the heroine has a young son rather than a dashing lover—both have similar scenes and situations. The crucial difference between them is their relative levels of craft.
For the cynical, I Dreamed of Africa can be enjoyed as a repudiation of the voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Hudson’s fiction-feature debut, Chariots of Fire, won an Oscar, but he’s spent the subsequent two decades proving that that film—overrated, but still his best—was a fluke. As for Basinger, awarded a supporting-actress Oscar for a blank blond-icon role in another overrated film, L.A. Confidential, she’s not an actress at all. The idea of building a film around her flat presence and wooden delivery is outlandish, yet she’s in virtually every frame. And it’s not just the movie’s lions and elephants that steal her scenes. Even the warthog upstages her. CP