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07 April 2006

The Constant Gardener (2005)

Ralph Fiennes (Justin Quayle), Rachel Weisz (Tessa Quayle), Hubert Koundé (Arnold Bluhm), Danny Huston (Sandy Woodrow)

Directed by Fernando Meirelles (City of God)

Plot: A widower is determined to get to the bottom of a potentially explosive secret involving his wife's murder, big business, and corporate corruption. Based on the novel by John le Carré

I prefer the original American movie poster - with Ralph's lovely neck and him tenderly nuzzling Weisz - as opposed to the home video release. The DVD cover is much fussier, with explosions that were not actually in the film and more to do with the espionage plot. Granted it is a spy movie, but his neck is so nice!

Ralph Fiennes has no Oscar. Rachel Weisz does. Painful and strange...

That said, I did not mind her at all in this role. She was far less annoying than in any previous film I've seen of hers (The Mummy, Chain Reaction, About a Boy, Sunshine, and Enemy at the Gates), to the point where I actually sympathized with her character. She did not make the film unwatchable. Good job! Weisz carried the first 45 minutes almost by herself, during which time Tessa Quayle's investigations are related in flashback, and she did so with a balance of laughter, shrewishness and charm. Did she deserve the best supporting actress Oscar for this accomplishment? Maybe... but preventing the ruination of an otherwise decent film is a commendable act.

In its entirety, The Constant Gardener is as grandiose and high-reaching as any spy thriller writers like le Carré would have created 25 years ago about Soviet war games and shady Iron Curtain dealings. But now, with the Cold War usual suspects long since extinct as potential Big Bads, le Carré and others have turned to supra-national agencies as villains - in this case, the pharmaceutical industry. Well chosen! Whereas a spy thriller limited to nations and national power struggles would seem terribly dated now, that same format takes on new life with believable, credible power here, even if the conventions remain. The lone rebel. The black cars and death threats. The nasty politicians in high places. Thugs. Imperiled children. Personal betrayals.

Did the plot feel like a contrivance generated solely for entertainment? No. Did it sound like a far-fetched conspiracy theory? No. The Constant Gardener was a depressing and upsetting film primarily because of its success in convincing me that these deals are taking place right now, somewhere in a place from which no truthful voices are emerging for us to hear. Meirelles' technique of briefly focuses on various national landmarks in Britain served to highlight the film's overall claim of British national collusion with the corrupt companies. The implication is that these companies cannot succeed in their plots without government cooperation.

Then I remembered that I saw this same issue in a film about 13 years ago, only back then it was set in Chicago and starred Harrison Ford. Here, the exotic setting and locale successfully served to shed light on multiple crises afflicting contemporary Africa, but I felt no sense of shock or surprise with any of the plot revelations. The Fugitive covered most of that territory already, only with Tommy Lee Jones as opposed to Gardener's small roles for Bill Nighy and Pete Postlethwaite. And yes, Pete did an accent. This time... South African!

Fiennes was, as you might suspect I would say, attractive and very good. He lacked the personal charisma of a part like Laszlo de Almásy in The English Patient, but he moved through this film with purpose and a lack of pretense or artifice. He played a rather nice, ordinary, mild-mannered (English)man, his first such role since... um... Quiz Show, probably, while still convincing me that his character had the necessary backbone and balls (anatomy!) to carry out his mission. No distracting accents. No multi-generational storylines. No Jennifer Lopez. Just good old fashioned emoting.

Annoying: the issue of their dead infant was never explained. What up with that? In trying to cast doubt on the stability of their marriage, the director left that entire plot line too obscure and completely unresolved. Grrrrr.

Am I generally a fan of spy movies? Not really. I would not have watched this film without Ralph Fiennes and solid reviews, but it was worth the while. You will be reminded to think twice - as if any of us really require the motivation to do so - about the companies and conspiracies behind those bloody annoying drug ads on the tele.

Oh, and one person can make a difference, yada yada...

Now go do your part.

Blogger Pacze Moj said...

I was a bit disappointed with The Constant Gardener because I expected more of a straight-forward spy movie than I got. Everything about the film was fine (Weisz's character actually bugged the heck out of me, so there was something in her performance); however, I wasn't satisfied at the end. I remember reading a review of the film when it came out in theatres that stressed the anger in John le Carré's novel, but I think Meirelles lost that in the film.

You also mention that you didn't feel any shock as the plot unfolded, which sums up my experience, too. I didn't care nearly as much as the filmmakers wanted me to... much the same as I felt about Meirelles' City of God. There's something about his style that I don't like. Maybe it's the way he emphasizes the exoticness of these third-world places to the point that they seem like fantasies designed for a first-world audience.

I liked Fiennes, though.


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