|The Constant Gardener (2005)
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston, Archie Panjabi, Bill Nighy
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Nearly three years after Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles blasted into film history by making the best crime drama since “The Godfather: Part II”, the director follows up his superb “City of God” with the smartest and most poignant drama to come to theaters this year. Based on the novel by best-selling author John Le Carré, “The Constant Gardener” is a film that brings fresh perspective to an arguably stale, but seemingly always relevant, story of corporate greed and malfeasance.
After his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) is discovered murdered in a remote portion of Northern Kenya, low-level British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), resolves to find answers to who killed his wife and why. As Justin begins to inquire into Tessa’s death, he discovers that she was investigating the practices of a major pharmaceutical company. His questions begin to reveal the sinister side of a profit-based drug company, showing the lengths it will go to protect its immoral practices and bottom line. The more Justin learns about his wife’s death and the plot to silence her, the more he learns about his wife as a person. Gradually his hunt becomes not only a struggle to know who killed Tessa and expose them, but also to know whom his wife actually was herself.
“The Constant Gardener” is particularly effective in showing Justin’s struggle for illumination into his wife’s life due to its nonlinear composition. Starting with Tessa’s murder and flashbacking to various points in her life, the audience gradually learns more about the woman just as Justin does. Meirelles and his editor ingeniously craft the various points throughout both the characters lives in a way that provides more and more resonance to the crime of Tessa’s death and the crimes of the drug company, that we discover is forcing HIV-positive Africans to be guinea pigs in tests of a dangerous new drug.
If there is a weakness to “The Constant Gardener” it is the at-times overly nuanced performance of Ralph Fiennes. At many points throughout the film the audience is left to guess what Justin is feeling. Often one is left frustrated at the lack of emotion conveyed by Fiennes. The man is British, not a corpse. Indeed, it’s a relief when Justin, a man who kept a garden in Africa, finally breaks down in the rain outside his old apartment where he and Tessa first made love, and begins raking weeds in a futile effort to escape his grief. But even this rare show of emotion by the character, viewed through a rain-soaked window, is inexplicably kept at a distance from the audience.
In “City of God,” Meirelles shocked us with his gritty look at child gangs in the slums of Rio de Janeiro in the 1970’s. With “The Constant Gardener” the director takes us to modern day Africa, displaying, through his immensely talented cinematographer César Charlone, the undeniable majesty and vibrancy of the continent, but also giving us a glimpse of the harsh realities of countries stricken with disease and overrun with tribal violence. The scenes in Africa reveal a continent still scarred by its colonial roots, serving as a powerful backdrop for a finely crafted story of love, murder, corporate exploitation, and moral decay.
The widescreen DVD of "The Constant Gardner" features a handful of deleted/extended scenes, as well as three production featurettes, but sadly, there's no director/actor commentary to be found. They must not care about this project as much as we thought.