From the director of “City of God,” one of the best movies in recent memory, and the author of such acclaimed novels as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Little Drummer Girl comes “The Constant Gardener,” the story of one man’s attempts to untangle the sinister circumstances surrounding his wife’s death.
Ralph Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a mid-level functionary with the British High Commission. His wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), is a volunteer working with the poor of Kenya, where they both live. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn how Justin and Tessa met (she vigorously interrogated him about British foreign policy at a lecture he was giving), fell in love, and eventually ended up going to Africa together.
When Tessa is found brutally murdered, suspicion naturally falls on her traveling companion; a doctor with whom she may or may not have been having an affair. As Justin begins investigating the matter, however, he uncovers a deeper conspiracy involving the pharmaceutical companies working to provide Africa’s impoverished with medicine, and the highest levels of the British government itself.
Director Fernando Meirelles has made a stunning looking movie. As with “City of God,” he provides an impressionistic portrayal of both natural beauty and scenes of unbelievable squalor (Meirelles filmed in the slums of Kenya, against the wishes of that country’s government). “The Constant Gardener” is a beautiful film to watch.
The performances are similarly impressive. Fiennes is very convincing as an initially timid man who grows more and more impassioned as he takes on his dead wife’s cause. He is desperately in love with Tessa, even after her murder, and Fiennes captures this effortlessly. Weisz is also in fine form, and gives her best performance to date as the activist who comes to love Justin in her way, but also has a very specific agenda of her own.
Unfortunately, “The Constant Gardener” falls flat in the story department. There’s no mystery here, as just about everything and everyone you think is involved in the conspiracy actually is. Rarely has such an otherwise accomplished film been so lacking in narrative. John Le Carré’s story of greed and corruption is a far cry from the subtle manipulations of his earlier novels. What we have here is more of a polemic against the machinations of drug companies and a cry for international action in world’s poorest continent. His intentions are good, to be sure, but the simplistic nature of the story distracts from Meirelles’ touch and the fine performances.
In the hands of an average director and a less accomplished cast, “The Constant Gardener” would be hard to sit through. As it is, Meirelles’ handling and the performances of Fiennes, Weisz, and Postelthwaite keep it from being little more than a propaganda exercise.