The Constant Gardener (2005, Fernando Meirelles)

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Fernando Meirelles opened this century by directing City of God, one of the best films of the last twenty years, a major, humane and provocative opus about life in the slums of Rio de Janiero — a movie that picked up cinematic trends propagated by the likes of Tarantino and Scorsese and expanded upon them, made them enliven real and tangible emotions and histories. It’s difficult not to view Meirelles’ follow-up and English language debut, The Constant Gardener, in light of its predecessor, compared to which it feels safe and humdrum. It works well enough as an effectively heartfelt and lean popcorn movie, but there is so much less happening beneath the surface than one naturally hopes.

Yet the central conceit of the story — the husband of a spy/activist killed in action picking up the pieces and finishing her work — is fascinating, and justifies the lofty romantics early on. The 2001 source novel by John le Carré is, atypically, a post-Cold War fiction of his that grew from the infamous clinical trials of an anti-meningitis drug conducted on Nigerian children by Pfizer in 1996. In the book and film, a pragmatic British diplomat called Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) attempts to piece together the circumstances behind the violent death of his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz), an activist who was investigating bizarre drug trials in Kenya. Initially skeptical of the conspiratorial elements of the matter, and having been continually shut out of Tessa’s work (for his own safety) during her life, Quayle quickly finds himself swept up in a very le Carré web of intrigue that inevitably calls to mind complex, impassioned, socially conscious political thrillers like Costa-Gavras’ Missing. Meirelles keeps things moving along, but the heavy lifting is done by the script, which very agreeably fuses the character study — the aching loss and brokenness in Quayle, the self-destructive curiosity and commitment he feels to his late wife — with the James Bond stuff.

Meirelles’ style is still kinetic and hyperactive, carefully contrasting the poverty and squalor of the real locations he and his crew visit with the upper-crust lifestyles of many of the depicted characters. The film boasts editing and photography as resourceful as complex as that seen in City of God, giving both films a kind of documentary urgency — which is all the better for a story that could easily become conventional in lesser hands. The travelogue narrative expands Meirelles’ visual pallette even as the dreadful conditions of life around Nairobi so deeply affected him — and his cast and crew — that the film led to a charity being established explicitly to bring greater money and education into the area, which may turn out to be The Constant Gardener‘s most lasting legacy. (Even if its content were richer, it would have immediately dated itself thanks to the staggering degree to which technology changed just after 2005; every computer and telephone in the picture plants it squarely in another era, less than ten years after its release.)

The complex politics explored by le Carré with regard to big pharma and aid work in Kenya are muddled a bit in my view by all but one of the major characters being white Europeans, and there is some sledgehammer irony probably inherited from the novel (it’s not enough that a scene in which Tessa begs for her husband to stop the car to help a suffering family is reprised later on a plane with Fiennes, it has to be almost word for word). Even if — as we well know — epidemics and strife remain sadly timely in the Africa of today, this is all explored with a certain depressing distance from the human realities of its themes. The book took explicit inspiration from — and the film is dedicated to the memory of — Yvette Pierpaoli, who was killed during a humanitarian mission in Albania, and the author’s personal familiarity with her work lends the story itself a hint of passion that doesn’t translate to Meirelles’ film. It is conscious of class division and the ironies of profit and corruptibility set against a landscape unknown, untested by most Western democracies, but only superficially.

So it seems like kind of a damning statement to declare The Constant Gardener as “a fun movie,” but it’s also the truth. No, it isn’t guilty of the black and white escapism of a James Bond picture nor even of the hollow melodramatics of something like Missing, but its romantic longing and obligations as entertainment seem to run at cross purposes with its sociological aspirations; it’s far breezier and less “important” than it wants to be. Fiennes and Weisz are both outstanding, the latter particularly evocative and capturing a hell of a lot in the mere wisps of character she’s given. This is roughly on a level with other recent thrillers of the same stripe like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Ghost Writer that are monstrously entertaining but will probably seem increasingly vapid as time goes on, all redeemed by excellent performances and stylish direction. That’s a pity because with this author, concept, background and director, it could have been exponentially more.

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