Film-Forward Review: [THE CONSTANT GARDENER]

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Directed by: Fernando Meirelles.
Produced by: Simon Channing Williams.
Written by: Jeffrey Caine, based on the novel by John le Carré.
Director of Photography: César Charlone.
Edited by: Claire Simpson.
Music by: Alberto Iglesias.
Released by: Focus.
Language: English.
Country of Origin: USA/UK. 129 min. Rated: R.
With: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Wiesz, Hubert Koundé, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy & Pete Postlethwaite.

With the exploitation of Africa taking front and center stage, The Constant Gardner is a fictionalized counterpart to Darwin's Nightmare, the award-winning documentary on imploding Tanzania. Its release is well timed, less than two months after this year's G-8 summit, which focused on African debt relief, and the high-profile Live 8 benefit concerts.

Interrupted from tending his patio garden, Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) receives the news his high-spirited wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) has been brutally murdered in the remote Kenyan countryside. Among the film's many flashbacks, Justin's first confrontation with his future wife is revealed to be far from romantic. After Justin delivers a speech in London (with St. Paul's serving as a majestic backdrop), Tessa rises from the audience and challenges Justin to justify the British government's intervention in Iraq (just one of the film's political salvos), then launches into a hysterical screed. After she clears the room, Justin, ever the caretaker, soothes her jittery nerves and accompanies Tessa to her posh Chelsea residence. After impetuous jumping into her bed, the polite and self-effacing Justin thanks her for "this wonderful gift." "How generous of me," Tessa replies, gently mocking him. His love for her only increases after her death, as he discovers her clandestine investigation of an international pharmaceutical giant's dealings in Africa and the resulting blackmail and betrayal.

Just as in director Fernando Meirelles gripping City of God, the story line of The Constant Gardener flashes back in time, juggles several subplots, and is loaded with frantic montages. As visually dazzling as his last film, the cinematography ranges from green Britain to the sun-drenched, red dust of Eastern Africa, with smooth transitions as the action moves from one continent to another. But unlike City of God, the screenplay doesn't always succeed in fleshing out the large cast of characters; a mental scorecard is needed. Two villains are interchangeable. And confined to a feature-length running time, Gardener's revelations unfold in a by-the-book, unsurprising manner. Of course, if the film replicated the novel's labyrinth of intrigue, it would be more than twice as long, but there's a reason why long-format adaptations of John Le Carre's novels have flourished on the BBC (Smiley's People on television, Absolute Friends on radio). While the film is so busy laying down its cards, there's little time for red herrings, let alone for the impact of the numerous plot twists and revelations. The outcome seems rushed and predestined, rather than exposed. Kent Turner
August 31, 2005



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