Wednesday, November 09, 2005

THE CONSTANT GARDENER - Above average political thriller

QUICK REVIEW: Intelligent thriller about a British diplomat who, in investigating the death of his wife, stumbles on a conspiracy by big-pharma to test dangerous drugs on poor Africans.

LONG REVIEW: I should first lay out my stall. I love John le Carre. He is, to my mind, one of the finest novelists of the twentieth century and has extended his analysis of the miserable, unglamorous, morally cloudy, world of Cold War intelligence to the similarly dark underbelly of multi-national corporations. His novel The Constant Gardener, tells the story of a radical young woman called Tessa who marries a low-level diplomat called Justin, based in Nairobi, Kenya. The first scenes show her husband react to the news of her murder. The story then tells, in a combination of flashback and normal narrative, how in investigating her murder he comes to understand his wife and truly fall in love with her.

Rachel Weisz (most famous as the chick from “The Mummy” and one of Hugh Grant’s many squeezes in “About a Boy”) plays Tessa with just the right mixture of good intentions and a slightly annoying gung-ho, selfish attitude. Her character is not meant to be a paragon but a real woman who means well and tries to do right even if using odd tactics. It is refreshing to see such a multi-dimensional portrait brought to the screen. Her husband is played by Ralph Fiennes, who I think is immensely good. His character is a nice, slightly unsure diplomat, unwilling to rock the boat, but fundamentally decent. When faced by matters of global import he does not turn into James Bond, but his integrity carries him through. The penultimate scene of the movie, where he fully comes to terms with his predicament and what his wife’s life was, is outstanding.

The movie also has a decent cast of supporting actors although it is slightly irksome to see the Brit, Pete Postlethwaite, play a South African with an appallingly bad attempt at the accent. Moreover, Danny Huston, a Yank who went to school in the UK, somewhat fumbles his attempt at a Brit accent for the role of the ambassador. However, all this is offset by the scene-stealing performance by Bill Nighy (“Love, Actually”) as the man from Whitehall. His casual cruelty is unnerving precisely because he is so charming. A true villain for the age of bureaucracy.

The movie is directed by Fernando Meirelles, who had such success with “City of God” and is shot with the same saturated colours and crazy hand—held camera-work. I find it a little over-done in this context, and it is worth contrasting his hyper-active video-game style with Michael Haneke’s still, long takes in the more successful thriller, Hidden. But there is no doubt that Meirelles makes Kenya’s northern regions look stunningly beautiful. For that reason, it is worth trying to see this in the big screen rather than on DVD. Overall, while there may be one or two slightly better movies out there – notably Hidden and “A History of Violence”, this movie stands head and shoulders above most of the dross currently showing. I think the rumours of Oscars are over-done, but you could do a lot worse.

THE CONSTANT GARDENER was released in August in the US. It goes on release in the UK on the 11th November, in France on the 28th December, and in Germany on the 12th January 2006.

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