Monday, September 26, 2005

"The Constant Gardener" Digs Deep


directed by Fernando Meirelles
starring Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Bill Nighy, others

You might be a privileged middle-class liberal walk out of “The Constant Gardener” with an oppressive feeling of social guilt. (But let’s be honest here: chances are pretty good you’re a privileged middle-class liberal if you’re even seeing this movie in the first place.)

“Gardener” marks Fernando Meirelles’ much–anticipated follow-up to the stunning “City of God,” and bears the clear stamp of his style—rapid editing with quick jump-cuts, extensive work with hand-held camera, and a harsh yet vibrant use of color and sunlight. (He employs the same cinematographer who shot “City of God,” and it shows.) The non-linear narrative is likewise reminiscent of “City of God,” though it’s nowhere near as splintered or hyperkinetic: its structuring, after all, owes as much to the John Le Carré novel from which it’s adapted as it does to Meirelles’ direction. The story begins with the murder of one of its principals—Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz), an impassioned do-gooder and wife of Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a middle-rung British diplomat stationed in Kenya. The rest of the movie shifts back and forth between Quayle’s memories of Tessa, shown in flashbacks, and his attempt to unravel the mystery of who killed her and why. This investigation is in turn intertwined with the mystery of Tessa the person—what made her tick, and whether she was ultimately true to herself and to her husband.

I won’t give anything away as to the latter questions. As to the other, suffice it to say that Le Carré delivers a bleak indictment of big pharmaceutical companies—specifically, their exploitation of sub-Saharan Africa as both market and testing ground for their products—and the Western governments that abet them for economic reasons. “This is how the world fucks Africa,” one character comments tonelessly, and whether you find this view of Africa convincing (I do) will largely dictate how effective you find the film. In that respect, it’s cut from the same cloth as “Hotel Rwanda,” though in form and style it’s closer to the less politically charged “The Interpreter.”

But unlike both of those films, “The Constant Gardener” is also a love story, and those who resist its political message may still appreciate its sensitive and poignant portrayal of a marriage of opposites. For Tessa is everything Quayle isn’t, and vice versa. She is, or was, a firebrand who never hesitated for a second to speak her mind at the most inappropriate moments, or to embarrass important figures in delicate situations. He’s—well, he’s a diplomat, and a particularly mild-mannered, self-effacing one at that, who seems to reserve all his passion and energy for his pet hobby: gardening. Yet after Tessa’s death he displays a tenacity for truth-seeking that equals hers—no doubt the consequence of his love for her, but also, one senses, something residual in his nature.

Weisz and Fiennes are superb, individually and in concert, as the unlikely couple. Weisz glows with the righteous fervor of a woman who’s made herself a human projectile, and somehow manages to be at once intolerable and irresistible. Fiennes, meanwhile, is saddled with the even more difficult task of making an initially diffident, rather colorless character increasingly compelling and sympathetic; he succeeds so brilliantly that the change from passive bystander to dogged hero creeps up on the viewer unawares. The rest of the cast stays pretty squarely in the background, though Bill Nighy and Danny Huston are memorably shady as Quayle’s superiors, while Donald Sumpter adds wisecracking flavor as an aging, world-weary spy. Pete Postlethwaite also turns up as a mysterious medical figure of indeterminate nationality, who wins the prize for most outlandish accent.

Unfortunately, as the narrative shifts away from the Quayle-Tessa axis and focuses more on Quayle’s dealings with these and other, much more unpleasant characters, it flags noticeably, notwithstanding fitful efforts to amp up the suspense. By the time Quayle receives his final death threat, it’s already patently clear who the bad guys are and where the story is headed. Still, the film does achieve a certain somber beauty, and even a measure of catharsis, at the very end.

I’ve never read any Le Carré, and this is the first adaptation of his work that I’ve seen. If it’s any indicator, he appears to be the natural heir to Graham Greene, master of the political thriller or romance as lens for the psyche of postcolonial Britain. Some of that peculiarly British consciousness has been filtered out of the film, as Fiennes noted in a conversation on NPR. But, as Fiennes went on to observe with genuine admiration, Meirelles brings a different, more vivid, and pointedly un-British sensibility to the story by keeping the lens sharply focused on Africa—in particular, the black Africans, despite the fact that most of the major characters are white and British. As such, his vision of “The Constant Gardener” offers a more universal tale of how the world failed Africa—and two doomed but determined individuals who strove to make the world see.



Blogger cck said...

Thank you for your detailed review of The Constant Gardener. While I am not qualified to be a privileged middle class liberal, I happen to like Ralph Fiennes' performance in the English Patient. If not for your insights and comments at the end of your review here, I would not have appreciated much the movie I do now. I also happen to enjoy WKW's movies too. Days of Being Wild features an excellent and talanted cast of stars. Sadly, Leslie Cheung has left us but his legacy lives on. As for the In the Mood of Love, I think that is one of WKW's best movies if not the best. As for 2046, I found it hard to follow and relate to.

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