Wednesday, September 14, 2005

THE CONSTANT GARDENER: A First Class Departure


If you have been tuning into this blog regularly, you know I have not had many happy moments at the movies this season. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a welcome joy. I seemed to be alone in my full appreciation for Broken Flowers, but then we've already established that intelligent, nerdy guys (yes, Jim, I don't care how full your luscious lips are -- with that haircut, you're officially a nerd) kind of turn me on, especially when they march to the beat of their own drummer.

Alas, aside from these couple of exceptions, life at the movies has ricocheted from unsurprisingly banal (Must Love Dogs), to embarrassingly bad (Bewitched) too deeply, profoundly disappointing (War of the Worlds). If I've seen other movies this summer, I've forgotten them. That alone should tell you something. Now that summer is waning and the kiddies are going back to school, the movies have started to fall back into the hands of the grown-ups, and The Constant Gardener is a great way to kick off that new season.

In this nifty adaptation of John Le Carré's novel of the same title, Ralph Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a young, straight-laced British diplomat who has been assigned to travel to Northern Kenya as a low-level attaché at the British High Commission (BHC). Immediately before leaving England, he embarks on a passionate, whirlwind romance with Tessa (beautifully played by Rachel Weisz), a fiery activist, who proposes marriage on the eve of Justin's departure. Once in Africa, the Quayles each pursue their own interests -- Justin's being his job and his love of gardening, and Tessa's being her bating of the BHC and corporate opportunists whom she believes are exploiting the Kenyan people. Unfortunately, though initially deeply in love, the two separate courses of their lives seem to begin to pull on the Quayles' marriage, and Justin becomes suspicious of Tessa's close friendship with a handsome Nairobi doctor (Hubert Koundé).

When Tessa is found raped and murdered and the doctor comes up missing in what initially appears to be a roadside attack by local bandits, rumor and innuendo from his associates at the BHC only serve to solidify Justin's conviction that his wife was being unfaithful. Still, his devotion to her, and his gradual realization that no one in his life is as he assumes they are, drives Justin to seek out the truth about Tessa and the "other" life she kept so furtively hidden from him. The more Justin delves into Tessa's murder, the more nervous he makes his friends at the BHC, who actively discourage him from asking questions for his own sake.

I'm not one of those women (rare as we may be) who is all gaga over Ralph Fiennes. He has always been a bit to reserved for my tastes. Still, Fiennes is very powerful in the role of a man who only discovers who his wife is after she is dead, and realizes that she was a remarkable and complex woman, very different from the one he thought he'd married. Fiennes creates a Justin Quayle who is very British, very withheld, very intact, until he loses the one thing he never realized he had -- the love of his life. His grief makes him raw and his loss makes him disoriented and determined. Fiennes shows us that in a very subtle, very controlled way, which works beautifully for the character.

Weisz' Tessa is everything Fiennes' Justin is not. Vivacious, socially charming, funny, exuberant, passionate. However, there is an air of danger about her from the beginning. The first scene in the film is a good-bye scene, where we are introduced to the alleged "love triangle" -- Justin, Tessa, the Nairobi doctor -- and immediately, before any chance at innuendo, the audience thinks, "Hmmm… is she…? With him…? Are they… ?" It is a lovely set-up, very underplayed by all, and it sets the stage nicely for what follows. Weisz is charming without being cloying, and passionate without being overbearing (unless you work at the BHC or one of the offending corporations, that is). Her insistence on protecting the Nairobi people from clutching, grasping corporate imperialism is naïve, but sincere in just the right way.

Director Fernando Meirelles (City of God), working from a fine screenplay adaptation by longtime BBC TV writer Jeffrey Canine (Dempsey & Makepeace, Bodyguards, CatsEyes), stays true to Le Carré's book, moving freely backward and forward through time to unravel Tessa's life, before and after her death. As Justin comes to know Tessa, we do, too. We fall in love with the real Tessa at the same time Justin does, hopelessly post-mortem. Though I have not read the Le Carré novel, I consulted with someone who has both read the book and seen the film. He says that the one thing Le Carré could not capture in the book was the sense of Africa. Meirelles reunites with his City of God cinematographer, César Charlone, to do just that. The grinding poverty of the AIDS-stricken Nairobi village is addressed convincingly, but it doesn't beat us over the head. It is a backdrop against which people are living their lives -- mothers care for their children, children manufacture games amidst the masses of trash and refuse by the roadside, people work and scrape, seeking to make the best existence for themselves and their families here. I'm not an enormous fan of handheld camera work, especially since it's usually done so very badly, but it is used sparingly in this film and to great effect, making the action more immediate and intense. All of it is underscored by Alberto Iglesias' score and evocative performances by Kenyan percussionist Ayub Ogada on the original soundtrack (Amazon has some sample snippets worth listening to).

The supporting cast bolsters Fiennes' and Weisz' fine performances. Danny Huston is suitably solicitous as the Quayles' ambitious and somewhat creepy BHC crony with a hidden agenda. Koundé plays the charming, handsome Nairobi doctor with such elegance, it's hard to imagine that Tessa is not having an affair with him. Richard McCabe (Vanity Fair) plays Tessa's adoring cousin, Hamm, with a sweet earnestness. Bill Nighy (Love Actually, Underworld) has a small, but pivotal role as the smarmy bad guy British royal who masterminds the entire conspiracy from London, and as the modern-day Schweitzer with slightly slanted ethics, Pete Postlethwaite (The Lost World, The Shipping News) is as good as… well, Pete Postlethwaite (and that's pretty damn good).

Do not go into the theatre expecting something lighthearted and upbeat. The only thing uplifting about The Constant Gardener is that it is a rare (these days) display of fabulous film making and acting coming together with a very good script. The results are gripping and entertaining, as well as emotionally charged and unpredictable. It is, in the end, a poignant story of a man who loses his wife, only to discover how much he truly loved her and how little he knew of her.

A definite must-see….


  1. A very astute and beautifully articulate discussion. You won't get any arguements from me. I'm curious, though, if pressed to give more than a thumbs up or down, what grade you'd give it.

  2. I'd give it an A-, only because there's no such thing as a perfect movie (so no A+) and I'm loathe to box myself in by naming any movie the best movie I've ever seen. It ranks right up there with "BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES" and "SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION", though, so it gets a top score.


  3. um, the perfect movie is the 1996 classic "Santa with Muscles." Headlining this treasure is star of screen and...other things, Hulk Hogan. We must agree to disagree.

  4. I meant besides "Santa with Muscles", of course, Hades....

    Goodness, I thought that just went without saying....