Directed by: Fernando Meirelles
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Hubert Kounde
The first question about The Constant Gardener is whether Fernando Meirelles' first English-language film is as good as City of God. The answer is no, not quite. But if it's not as good, then it isn't very far from it either. And not being as good is no disgrace in and of itself, since a lot of very fine films don't compare with City of God.
Gardener is, however, a more accessible work that's likely to appeal to a wider audience -- though without crossing the line to mainstream success. To expect this film to be wildly popular is as absurd as expecting John Boorman's The Tailor of Panama (the last attempt at bringing a John Le Carre political thriller to the screen) to have been. Gardener isn't going to be a blockbuster, and it isn't going to make Meirelles into a household name. Despite the presence of name stars like Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz and with a Le Carre novel as its basis, the Brazilian director has nonetheless made a complex film -- and a downbeat one.
But as a cinematic work of art, Gardener is one of the best films in this (so far) bleakest of years. It plays very fair with the viewer -- never for a moment pretending this is going to be anything other than a rather bleak story, since it starts with the murder of Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz) and then goes back in time to bring the story forward to her death. It's a sign of Meirelles' brilliance as a filmmaker that this flashback (merely the first of several audacious time shifts that allow past and present to coexist) is so deftly handled that it's almost possible to forget what we're leading up to.
Tessa's first meeting with Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) is most inauspicious; she's a political activist badgering him over a deadly dull, government-party-line damage-control speech he's delivering for an absent diplomat. But Justin is intrigued rather than outraged -- and agrees with her more than a little, at least in the abstract. Soon their relationship becomes a romance, in part because the seemingly unexciting Justin makes her feel "safe." In every instance, she's the aggressive one. She comes onto him. She gets him into bed. And when he is transferred to Kenya, she's the one who proposes going with him -- as either wife or mistress. In fact, it's left to Justin to react in the traditional manner of a surprised and pleased woman.
There's something almost feminine about Fiennes' performance -- watch the way he hugs himself when she makes her proposal. It's the kind of thing I'm not sure I've seen any actor do other than Chaplin. It's brave and fascinating, and it completely works for the character.
As the story winds itself back to the present, a complicated picture of the marriage of this reticent, gardening-obsessed diplomat and his outspokenly left-wing wife emerges -- one that raises questions as to whether her death was merely the work of bandits, or was an outright assassination. The complex plot, involving governmental corruption, shady dealings by a pharmaceutical company and cover-ups, is beautifully developed. Suspicious things turn out to mean something other than they what they initially seem, and innocence turns out to be less than it appears -- not to mention the well drawn characters whose motives are not always obvious.
Gardener tells a rich tale, its characters managing be both interesting and realistic. In a way, it's as much a love story as it is a thriller that packs a strong political statement, making it very human rather than preachy.
Meirelles balances it all with the same kind of style he evidenced in City of God; this is truly a filmmaker's film. I've heard some carping that his stylistic flourishes and time shifts pull the viewer out of the story, and while there may be some truth in that, it's a curious complaint to make about a movie so completely stylized that it constantly and deliberately reminds you that it's a movie. And when a film can do that and have an emotional resonance in the bargain, you know it's from a filmmaker of no little power. Rated R for language, some violent images and sexual content/nudity.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke