In the narrow world of expatriate Kenya, Justin and Tessa Quayle (Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz) seem an odd couple. She is a passionate human rights activist with scant regard for convention or social graces. He is a shy, self effacing and painfully discrete diplomat stationed with the British High Commission. When Tessa is found brutally murdered in a remote corner of Northern Kenya, most people expect Justin to leave the matter to the discretion of his more forceful colleagues. But Justin refuses to accept that the murder was a crime of passion perpetrated by her colleague, a local doctor. Instead he embarks on a quest to find her killers and clear her name. His quest takes him on a collision course with a huge pharmaceutical company, whose misdeeds Tessa was on the point of uncovering. As he digs deeper into the truth Justin soon discovers that it is not only career that is at stake - but his life as well.
The Constant Gardener is one of the most intelligent and poignant films of the year. Director Fernando Meirelles (of City of God fame) and screenwriter Jeffrey Caine have captured the essence of John Le Carre's critically acclaimed novel in a beautifully shot and superbly acted piece of cinema. The result is as entertaining as it is thought provoking.
As with any good adaptation, the film owes much of its power to the source material. Le Carre's intriguing blend of thriller, social commentary and human drama make the story as relevant and thought provoking as it is entertaining. By marrying tangible human drama with abstract humanitarian concerns, Le Carre allows us to learn without feeling taught, and to sympathise without feeling coerced.
But, as respectful as Meirelles is for his source material, he has without a doubt made the film his own - and it is a finer piece of work for it. Where the novel had only one love story - Justin and Tessa's - the film has two. This second love story is Tessa's (and Meirelles') love for Africa and her people. Where Le Carre's novel framed the story principally from an enlightened Western perspective, the film feels far more African in its origin and outlook. In Meirelles lingering shots of ordinary people going about their business, we get a sense of the deep attachment the filmmakers formed with the subjects of their story.
Far from diminishing the power of Le Carre's work, Meirelles interpretation only increases its impact. Meirelles is riffing on the novel as though it were a great piece of Jazz, subtly tinkering with the points and counterpoints until his version of the story is simultaneously different and identical to the original.
Meirelles is gifted with a top notch cast, all of whom offer excellent performances. Fiennes is particularly good, displaying an exquisite control of tone and expression in this challenging role. It's refreshing to see him play a more timid and phlegmatic character instead of one of the brooding, intense parts that have made him famous. The habitually underestimated Weisz shows just what a fine actress she is in a finely tuned and utterly convincing performance. The marvelous Bill Nighy, so brilliant in comic roles, shows an almost disturbing flair for playing the villainous diplomat, Sir Bernard Pellegrin.
But the best performance of the picture comes from Danny Huston as Justin's oily and weak willed colleague Sandy, whose craven actions seal Tessa's fate. Huston approaches this small and rather unpleasant role with such verve and skill that he comes across as a real person instead of a caricature - and the film is all the richer for it.
Though not quite as strong as the acting, the film's visuals are excellent nonetheless. Cinematographer Cesar Charlone (a long time collabortator of Meirelles) has opted for extensive use of hand-held cameras and available light for scenes involving dialogue and interaction. This style is counterpointed by gorgeous scenic and establishing shots using more conventional camera setups. The result is that the film's action feels more immediate and gritty, while the settings feel more traditionally filmic. The film also makes effective use of colour palettes - warm reds for Africa and cool blues for Europe - in much the same vein as Steven Soderberg's Traffic.
One positive that could be easily overlooked is the complexity of the film's African characters. The depictions are not confined corrupt politicians and starving masses, though both of these groups are well represented. Instead we see a whole spectrum of humanity, from a soft spoken and pragmatic UN Aid pilot, to Tessa's urbane and sensitive colleague Dr. Joshua Ngaba.
The film does have its faults of course. As valid as the attack on greedy pharmaceutical companies may be, the ordinary evil of their high prices and political bully tactics don't require any adornment. Yes, the tale of a callous drug testing conspiracy makes for a more engaging viewing, but it also detracts from reality which, though less glamorous, is just as awful.
Another possible drawback is Meirelles' tendency to neglect the thrilling aspects of the story in favour of the human drama of the underlying narrative. This makes the film less entertaining and more thoughtful which may, depending on your tastes, be a positive change.
A final stumbling block is the film's occasional overuse of visual gimmicks. The hand-held cameras, in particular, become overwhelmingly obtrusive - drawing attention to themselves and throwing off the balance of some vital scenes.
But overall the film is nothing short of excellent. This is grown-up entertainment - complex, subtle and devoid of cheap thrills. It is a member of that rare class of films that appeal as strongly to the intellect as they do to the emotions. See it today - you won't regret it.
- Alistair Fairweather
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