The Constant Gardner

September, 2005, Drama

The Constant Gardener

Among the many accomplishments of director Fernando Meirelles, (City of God) in adapting John LeCarre’s African-based murder mystery is this; he opens and closes his film with violent deaths while avoiding Hollywood’s frightful tendency to pander with unnecessary explicitness. This uncharacteristically discreet handling of the movie’s mayhem perfectly underscores the finely modulated performance of Ralph Finnes, (Schindler’s List, The English Patient). He plays Justin Quayle, a British civil servant attached to Her Majesty’s diplomatic staff in Kenya. When his stunning but dangerously independent wife Tessa, (Rachel Weisz) begins to vocally champion, under the inspiration of a native doctor,  the rights of poor Kenyans to adequate health care, Quayle’s orderly, bureaucratic life shatters, leaving him unprepared for the events which follow. As he quietly but persistently begins examining the circumstances behind his wife’s death, he’s catapulted into a dangerous search which ultimately leads to the mysterious connection between a Kenyan-based company, owned and operated by a thuggish English businessman and the drug trial he’s conducting for a large European-based pharmaceutical company with substantial investments in Great Britain.

Le Carre’s novel is among the angriest in his long and prolific career; in it, he chastises the European, (especially British) tendency to see the countries of Equatorial Africa as fertile ground for economic manipulation, even when the strategies employed shamelessly exploit native populations. Always willing to spend time constructing highly credible characters, the author painstakingly developed Quale’s persona with all of the intricacy one could want in a protagonist. Thanks to an inspired adaptation by screenwriter Jeffrey Caine and Fiennes’ beautifully muted performance, Gardener convincingly tracks the moral growth of a man from cautious bystander to dedicated activist without once striking a false note.

At 50, director Meirelles is the Brazilian equivalent of an overnight sensation; although he trained as an architect, he’s spent the past 25 years making small independent shorts and commercials before forming an independent production company that tackled the filming of the Brazilian best seller City of God, a book with dozens of story lines and an astounding 350 characters. Meirelles was able to take all the complexities found in that book’s examination of life in a Brazilian slum and turn them into an internationally acclaimed movie which proved successful both artistically and commercially. On the strength of its success, he was asked to take on the challenge of bringing this highly charged story of contemporary Africa to the screen. 

City of God stunned audiences by almost flaunting the worst aspects of urban poverty; street violence, the repeated physical and sexual abuse of women amid filthy living conditions, all aided and abetted by corrupt governmental officials, especially the police. He’s taken that same approach here, juxtaposing the carefully tailored lives of Kenya’s expatriates and diplomats with the rich mixture of Kenya’s fetid slums and the vibrant life which pulsates in them. Meirelles again displays a unique capacity to present the brute ugliness of third world poverty without sensationalizing it on the one hand or losing its throbbing vitality on the other. 

There are some odd casting choices here however; the always superb Bill Nighy nearly steals the entire movie as Sir Bernard Pellegrin, Quale’s archly condescending superior. On the other hand, America’s Danny Huston, (grandson of the legendary Walter, son of actor/director John & brother to actress/director Angelica) once again mangles a promising role. Why Meirelles used this Hollywood B-list actor to play Sandy, (Quale’s smarmy colleague with the hots for Tessa) can only be explained by the film’s producers. As was true in Birth, The Aviator and his execrable work in Silver City, Huston lacks the ability to bring even the smallest hint of credibility to any role he plays. Who says family connections don’t matter in the movie business?   

As the tempestuous Tessa, Ms. Weisz finally has an opportunity to fully demonstrate a level of skill and depth only hinted at in earlier cinema-fodder like The Mummy and Envy. Her performance comes equipped with enough acerbic focus to satisfy the most earnest of reformers without once losing an ounce of the self-possessed sexual appeal her character’s numerous appetites imply. At once alluring, principled and capable of explosive confrontation, she epitomizes the kind of African champion only hinted at in Sidney Pollack’s The Interpreter earlier this year. That film was simple escapism - - this one manages to deliver solid commentary on the question of whether the first world has any moral responsibilities in its dealing with third world countries.  

As socio-political commentary, Gardener doesn’t come close to Darwin’s Nightmare, the chilling examination of Tanzania’s fishing industry and its European connections now playing in New York. But in the category of moody, fast-paced thrillers, Meirelles has managed to do the best job of bringing a Le Care work to the screen in the 40 years since the debut of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

The Verdict? See it; you won’t be disappointed.      

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