Imagine you’re Fernando Meirelles. You’ve directed a well received family film and gone on to direct a hit in your home country which doesn’t see much press outside of South America. Then as fate would have it you helm a movie beloved by millions and find yourself up for best director at the Academy Awards. Where do you go from here?
Following the international success of the epic City Of God and the follow up television series “City of Men,” Fernando Meirelles’ newest film, “The Constant Gardener,” is in many ways a departure from his previous efforts both quieter and subtler but still able to maintain the humane spirit present in all of his work. Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) is a lower level British official living in Africa with his young wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz). Tessa’s motivations for being with the older man are questionable considering how opposite they are; Justin is content to do his job and tend to his garden while Tessa aggressively seeks to correct the various social ills around her. When Tessa travels out of town on a seemingly routine trip her jeep is run off the road and she is raped and murdered. Despite the pleas of his lawyer Sandy (Danny Huston), whose own attachment to Tessa may have been more than a friend, Justin is not content to write the incident off as just a random tragedy. As he begins to dig into Tessa’s past Justin discovers secrets about his enigmatic wife, a possible conspiracy and ultimately himself.
“The Constant Gardener” works on several levels thanks to Le Carre’s engaging story, Meirelles’ paced but effective direction and the strong leads. The film is able to be a thriller, a political statement and a haunting romance all at once. The suspense is allowed to slowly build as the film progresses and the danger is much more true to life than the normal car chases and explosions that fill most American releases. The early cryptic statements and glances are later replaced with real danger for Justin as his quest draws on and in this down to earth approach the threats seem much more real.
Justin not only uncovers a mystery but what truly made Tessa tick, allowing him to get to know his wife for the first time. Fiennes is able to shine as the bureaucrat beginning to think for himself and is able to give the character a very different feel from the revenge hero we are accustomed to seeing. When Justin breaks down outside of Tessa’s old home in England his pain is palatable given the restraint Finnes had been able to show leading up to the catharsis. Seeing how a large part of the film is non-linear Weisz excels as the passionate Tessa. After years of appearing in crowd pleasers (“The Mummy” films, “Constantine”) hopefully Weisz is able to advance to even larger films thanks to her raw, real performance here. From their awkward first meeting to trying to select a name for their baby, Fiennes and Weisz showcase an honest chemistry which makes their plight all the more heartbreaking.
While one wishes several of the villains were a little less obviously evil and that a little more background had been given to Justin so his later transformation would have even more of an impact, these are minor gripes. In the end, “City of God” may be the film Meirelles’ will always be remembered for given it’s scope and vision but as an example of an excellent old school, deliberately plotted thriller, “The Constant Gardener” is one hell of a follow up. It is a hard enough task for most filmmakers to make one great film but as of now Fernando Meirelles’ has made two.