The Constant Gardener (2005)
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Hubert Koundé, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite
Directed by: Fernando Meirelles
Based on the 2001 novel by John le Carré of the same name, The Constant Gardener is the story of Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a mid-level British diplomat in Nairobi, who is spurred into action following the murder of his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz), an activist battling to uncover corruption involving pharmaceutical companies in Africa. Le Carré is a spy novelist of some acclaim, drawing from his personal experiences as a member of Britain's MI6 (Le Carré is the writing pseudonym for David Cornwell), bringing to this story the intrigue of international espionage and governmental cover-ups. Director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) brings to the film a flair for the life and colour of its African setting, giving the picture an almost surrealist flair in how the setting is presented.
The true standouts of the film are its lead performers. Fiennes, an underrated actor who should probably be more famous than he is, does a phenomenal job as the timid Justin, a man more content to tend to his garden than to advance in his career or follow the pursuits of his wife. Fiennes makes Justin an ordinary figure very quickly, bringing the proper level of desperation to his pursuit. Justin is a simple, unimposing figure, pressed into putting his life in danger to learn the truth of his wife's death, and, more importantly, her life. It isn't an easy pursuit for Justin, as it causes him to do that which he had never done before in his life: question authority and disrupt the establishment. Your heart goes out to Justin as he follows his pursuit, getting clues as to how insignificant those in his life may have found him to be.
Fiennes is admirable in his role, but the true highlight of the film is Weisz, who brings a much-needed energy to the film in every scene she inhabits. Tessa is a firebrand, ignoring the social norms to pursue what she believes (making her Justin's polar opposite). The current front-runner to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Weisz certainly carries her parts of the film, giving the film heart and energy, making the rest of the film pale in comparison to her flashback scenes. Which helps her Oscar campaign (even though considering the co-lead of the film a supporting actress is a bit problematic, but I'll allow that she was probably only in half the movie), but sadly, points out the flaws of the movie as a whole.
The movie seems to have a lot going for it, an interesting plot full of intrigue and cover-ups, a director with a distinctive visual style, two fantastic performances from its leads, a solid supporting cast, and an important message about pharmaceutical interests in Africa. I should have been glued to the screen, then whipped into a moralistic rage as it ended. Sadly, the pieces don't add up in this film, leaving me to believe that it is probably a very good book that got lost in translation.
The biggest problem with The Constant Gardener is that it lacks the energy and heart throughout the film that Weisz brings in her scenes. This is a movie that should easily appeal to the hearts of its audience, as evil pharmaceutical companies play God with those they claim to be helping. Moreover, its key plot involves a man pursuing the memory of his dead wife. Unfortunately, the movie plays more to the intellect of the viewer than the emotions, heavy on exposition and cluttering it with too many similiar supporting characters and questions to sufficiently deal with in a two-hour movie. The entire thing feels too clinical and cold to really engage the viewer, a feeling increased by Meirelles' decision to shoot much of it in a documentary style. (On that subject, can we now agree that the whole hand-held camera work thing directors use to show the confusion of the subject is getting tired? It's practically a film-school cliché now, made worse in this film as Fiennes, a non-director, apparently did a lot of it for his character's POVs).
The end result is a decent film that occasionally looks great with two great performances, that is ultimately disappointing. It's not a bad movie, but not as good as it could have been, as I really wish it had been.
Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Sometimes In April (2005)