Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener is a film you just can’t get enough viewings of, it’s such a dense, sumptuous and emotionally complex piece that each revisit rewards with new angles on story, perspectives on character motivation and comprehension of subtle, hazy moments in the performances that you didn’t pick up the first few times because the visual element just overwhelms you at first. This is a cool flick for me because it’s based on a book by John Le Carré, a spy novelist whose work I often find too dry and lacking in warmth, but not here, I saw this during it’s theatrical run way back when and have loved and felt connected to it ever since. It doesn’t hurt that it stars Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, two of the most intuitive, brilliant performers of their generation, and if there’s a duo who could do justice to a story like this, it’s them. Fiennes plays Justin, a reserved, introverted diplomat in Africa. Weisz is his wife Tessa, a fiery, outgoing humanitarian worker. They couldn’t be more opposite, as we later learn through fragmented flashbacks, but the film throws us in the deep end by telling us right off the bat that Tessa has been murdered. So begins an elliptical mystery shrouded in a poignant love story, a conspiracy thriller that uncoils patiently, each clue spreading the seeds for ten more. Tessa was working in the field researching the actions of drug companies in this third world region, she may have been having an affair, and she was pregnant. The stakes couldn’t be higher, but so is the risk for Justin to become too entrenched in a quagmire of lies, red herrings and dead end crossroads, and, just like Tessa, lose his way. Who really knows what’s going on in such a chaotic part of the world? Does Pellegrino (Bill Nighy) the mysterious CEO of big pharma? Perhaps Sandy (Danny Huston) Tessa’s friend from the embassy? Or is it Dr. Lorbeer (Pete Postlethwaite, excellent in the haunting third act), an elusive aids worker, who holds the secret to her death? It’s not easy resolution this film is interested in, but rather overturning more stones that lead to more mysteries until one feels wonderfully beguiled, a true sign that script and edit are firing on all cylinders. Many things are hinted at, including whether or not the drug companies are illegally testing non FDA approved prototypes on poverty stricken locals under the guise of medicine, which seems just scary enough to be true. The film dangles answers just out of reach, and even in the eerie eleventh hour where Justin finds himself stranded in a desolate plane of Africa, you get the sense that the resolutions he comes too are only the half of it, if that. Meirelles also directed City Of God, another film set in an unfortunate area of the world, he brings a jagged, splintered perception to the editing and narrative, a perfect garnish to the already impenetrable nature of Le Carré’s literary work. Cinematographer Cesar Charlone (also responsible for City Of God) films with elemental grace and captures the light brilliantly. Weisz and Fiennes bring out humanity in Le Carré’s work that he probably didn’t even know was there, and are beacons in a weathered storm of indifference and injustice. Not an easy film to absorb, but what it withholds in straightforwardness (which is a plus quality in my books anyways) it makes up for in beauty, mystery and nuance. One of the best films of the last few decades.
Usually, I’m not super hot on adaptations of John Le Carré novels. His style tends to veer towards dense, impenetrable narratives that confuse and confound me, and are further frustrating because they have such wonderful casts and production value (I’m lookin at you, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). The Constant Gardener, however, is a breathtaking story that I’ve enjoyed very much since I saw it in theatres at probably too young an age. It fashions a story that although is complex and refuses to be straightforward about what it’s trying to say, contains essential beats and stunning performances from its actors. It’s also set apart from other Le Carré yarns for having the most humanistic, compasionate core to its story, centering it’s focus on the atrocities that humans can commit upon each other in mass, faceless fashion and showing us the sparse, golden good deeds that a few kind people can put forth to counter such madness. An organic, emotional theme is nice compared to the clinical, detached style we usually see from this writer. The film is lucky in the sense that it has deeply gifted leads: Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, two actors who always resonate with a relatable human kinship in their work, and are both superb here. Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a British ambassador in a god forsaken African region whose luminous wife Tessa (Weisz) is found dead in a remote area under suspicious circumstances. She was investigating several high profile pharmaceutical companies, under scrutiny for their sociopathic, amoral drug testing trials on the poverty stricken Africans. Intrigue strikes in after this, as shellshocked Justin pieces together what lead to her death, and how he can cripple those responsible using espionage and a level of keenness that’s well above both his pay grade and mental constitution. Flashbacks abound as we see Justin and Tessa’s early years unfold, adding all the more to the lumps in our throats as we know the ultimate outcome which the film frankly showed us in the opening frames. Welcome supporting turns come from other UK geniuses like Bill Nighy as an icy CEO, Richard McCabe as Fiennes’s courageous brother in law, Danny Huston as a shady friend of Tessa’s and Pete Postlethwaite as a mysterious doctor who figures later in the plot. Cinematographer César Charlone makes sweeping work of bringing the chaotic nature of Africa to life, it’s people, landcsape and aura beautifully rendered in shots that evoke the best of Monét and similar artists. Such beauty brought forth from a story filled with unpleasantness is interesting, almost a refusal to present the depressing story in any other fashion than to show us the virtue in tragedy, the cost of lost lives and unchecked corruption present for all to see and wince at, yet somewhat quelled by the undeniable forces of light also in play. Rachel and Ralph’s work is an example of this; They are compassion incarnate, pools of hurt, determination and love for one another in the face of evil, unfair odds. They should both be very proud of their work here. Direct Fernando Meirelles has helmed Blindness and the classic City Of God, and as such is no stranger to infusing pain and sorrow with esoteric, positive qualities. He takes full advantage of the African setting, where suffering is commonplace and along with his entire troupe, throws all the lush, alluring kindness straight into the face of horror in an audacious stylistic set of choices which make The Constant Gardener one of the most achingly well constructed romantic annd political thrillers of the decade.