Constant Gardener blooms onscreen

Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz heat up the screen as husband and wife in Gardener.
Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz heat up the screen as husband and wife in Gardener.
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Film Review: The Constant Gardener starring Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Bill Nighy

The Constant Gardener is probably one of the most misleading film titles of all time. It suggests a quiet drama about a focused gardener, which could not be a more inaccurate description of the tense, angry, political thriller it is.

The film is a dense mystery about dangerous pharmaceutical testing in Northern Kenya, but also an involving human drama filled with wonderful, layered performances by a solid group of character actors. It’s filmed in an expressive neo-documentary style by a talented foreign filmmaker working with his first large-scale American budget. In short, it is exactly the type of intelligent, challenging genre movie that Hollywood is supposed to be incapable of making these days. The Constant Gardener is a breath of fresh air following the brain-numbing summer blockbuster season. It’s a shame about the title, though.

The movie is based on a novel by John Le Carré, best known for his edgy, Cold War spy thrillers such as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Le Carré writes entertaining political thrillers that deal with pertinent moral issues. In The Constant Gardener he exposes the dangerous pharmaceutical testing being done involuntarily on the lower classes in Kenya. The issues are slowly revealed as the protagonist Justin, a British diplomat played by Ralph Fiennes, investigates the mysterious murder of his wife.

The first half of the film is deliberately vague and confusing. We see bits and pieces of the wife’s discoveries, with scenes being played out of order or ending abruptly only to be repeated in full later in the movie. It’s all very confusing, but deliberately so—Justin paid very little attention to his wife’s affairs, spending most of his time tending to his garden (hence the lame title).

After his wife is murdered, Justin finds a note implying that his wife was having an affair, which may have led to her death. Following this clue, he uncovers the truth about his wife’s murder and her role in discovering a conspiracy involving major drug companies and various tight-lipped politicians (one of whom is played by the increasingly popular British character actor Bill Nighy, most recently memorable as a washed-up British pop singer in the romantic comedy Love Actually).

What’s surprising is how the director, City of God’s Fernando Meirelles, is able to combine social commentary with a traditional mystery/thriller story structure. The commentary never feels tacked-on nor does it interfere with the audience’s excitement. It is carefully interwoven throughout the plot, with a few moments that burn into your memory (such as a stunning shot that pans from a vast golf course to an equally large African slum sitting next to it).

Meirelles continues to use his MTV/verité visual aesthetic from City of God in this film. His style combines handheld pseudo-documentary filming, with flashy editing and camera tricks. The movie feels at once realistic and artfully stylized.

Between these two films Meirelles has developed a very unique directing style. Other filmmakers may use the same techniques, but no one combines them in quite the same way.

With only two full-length features to his name, Meirelles is fast becoming one of the most exciting directors working today. Ultimately, while The Constant Gardener is another brilliant piece of filmmaking from Meirelles, it is not quite the masterpiece City of God was.

While Meirelles’ virtuoso visual-filmmaking and LeCarre’s non-linear storytelling keep the film fresh and exciting for most of its running time, they stall about two-thirds of the way through. In the end, the movie follows the format and structure of a pulp murder-mystery novel. The filmmakers are able to transcend this worn structure for most of the piece, but at a certain point the movie becomes simply a series of scenes where Fiennes meets with all the characters in the story one-by-one to unravel the plot. Despite strong performances from the entire cast (Fiennes, in particular, brings an understated, emotional weight to every scene), and Meirelles’ use of every directorial trick he can think of, much of the movie’s third act feels formulaic. It is exciting and suspenseful, but tired.

That being said, the movie comes together in the end for a powerful and appropriate conclusion. The Constant Gardener raises all the right questions about issues of conspiracy, infidelity, corruption and love, and does not offer any unrealistic or unnecessary conclusions for the audience. It merely presents a frightening reality within the structure of an exciting thriller. It may not be perfect, but it proves that Hollywood is still capable of producing intelligent movies aimed at audiences over the age of twelve.

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