The Constant Gardener
2005, R, 129 min. Directed by Fernando Meirelles. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Bill Nighy, Danny Huston, Pete Postlethwaite, Gerard McSorley, Hubert Koundé.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., Sept. 2, 2005
The title – borrowed from the eponymous John Le Carré novel – makes the movie sound like a Merchant-Ivory yawn, but this canny and well-crafted thriller is anything but boring. Meirelles, who famously juggled a cast of hundreds, an epic story, and a heavyweight political subtext in 2002’s City of God, presides ably over this international production, which has style, heart, smarts, and guts to spare. Its puzzle-box intrigue plot does almost everything a movie can do in two hours – make people fall in love, attack multinational corporations, stage a tribal raid against the panorama of an African veldt – without sacrificing the logic of its storytelling. (If invaders from Mars suddenly landed in this movie, Meirelles and writer Jeffrey Caine could find a way to make sense of it.) Gardener is substantive and imaginatively filmed but is not an off-putting art movie; rather, it’s the kind of solid but accessible filmmaking that prevailed in Hollywood’s golden age. As the titular character, British diplomat Justin Quayle, Fiennes is the sort of mild, bemused Englishman who delights in the pH of his backyard soil. Wife Tessa (Weisz) is the sort of shrieking radical who ambushes politicians at press conferences and excoriates them until she’s hauled off by security. Their meet-cute is the film’s weakest moment, but after the two fall impulsively in love and relocate to a post in Kenya, the slow-burn first act heats up to a rolling boil: Tessa’s Jeep is discovered belly-up on a remote road, her body burned to death inside it. To say more would give too much away, except that Tessa’s death opens at last a window into her life, kept secret from her fiercely admiring but distant husband. As much as this is a movie about corruption, murder, fraud, greed, and the separate worlds inhabited by the foreign service and the peoples of Africa, it is a movie about the separate worlds inhabited by husbands and wives, about the interior spaces of the heart and the way people in love grant or deny access to them. The film manages at once to be broadly political and intimately personal, anchored in place by the two leads and a strong supporting ensemble. In its structure and its dramatic execution, The Constant Gardener calls to mind Michael Mann’s The Insider; like Mann, Meirelles marshals stunning, authentic performances but is a stylist at heart. We see Tessa’s wreck in flashbacks and flash-forwards; in grainy, oversaturated stock; in crazily tilted angles while a flock of birds takes wing in the background and the tires spin fruitlessly. Our most personal acts, the film suggests, take place against a beautiful but terrifying backdrop of chaos, kept at bay only by the patient rituals of civilization.