Dir: Fernando Meirelles.2005. UK-Ger. 125mins.
Proving that City OfGod was no one-hit-wonder, Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles delivers avivid tapestry of international intrigue set against the backdrop of Africa anda pharmaceutical industry in The Constant Gardener, based on spyspecialist John le Carre's novel of the same name.
Part retrospective lovestory, part political mystery, part strident drama, it's a well-articulated,gorgeously lensed and timely jeremiad against Third World exploitation at thehands of mercenary business interests. Its only serious question-mark iswhether the old-school diffidence exhibited by many of the leading Englishcharacters restrains the film from the full impact of its impassioned politicsand emotional hurt.
Box office prospects shouldstill prove strong on the specialist circuit worldwide (it opens in the US onAug 31, ahead of its international premiere in competition at Venice), wherethe movie's novelistic density will find an appreciative reception among thoseweary of the shrill emptiness of so much of this summer's release schedule.
An obvious benchmark is TheEnglish Patient, which like The Constant Gardener offered RalphFiennes in a doomed romance against the upheavals of an exotic geo-politicalbackground (although it was obviously more of a period drama rather than acontemporary piece).
However, that Oscar-winningfilm was rather much more incandescent in its emotion, allowing Miramax to playup tragic intensity of its love story in a shrewd marketing campaign thatyielded $78m Stateside - eclipsed by its $153m internationally - and a trophyroom of Academy Awards.
Here, the emotionalfireworks are really only provided by Rachel Weisz; and while her variousflashback scenes are shot through with an immediacy, one wishes she was in manymore scenes.
As was the case with TheEnglish Patient, Focus and its overseas distribution partners can expectmuch greater returns from international territories. By point of comparison, TheInterpreter, another recent drama of internationally flavoured intrigue,took more than half its respective business overseas, although it was the starpower of Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn that ensured it became a $150m grosser.
Less crude in its approachto geo-issues, The Constant Gardener is also more elliptical andpolitically highbrow; as such it will rely much more strictly on reviews andword of mouth to propel its prospects.
Awards potential remains await-and-see proposition. Certainly its pedigree and technical proficiency makeit an attractive candidate. Its artistic design categories will likely receiveinitial attention, but the film's geo-political intrigue may prove too esotericfor more mainstream voters who like their social consciences awakened, but nottoo taxed.
Of the cast, Rachel Weiszwould seem to be the best focus for campaigning: her performance is sosmoulderingly sensual that audiences can buy this film as a romance of lostlove along the lines of The English Patient rather than just anothergeo-political thriller.
Ralph Fiennes stars asJustin Quayle, a polite-to-a-fault British career diplomat who lives simply,tending to his plants and serving by a code of unquestioning duty in his long-timepost in Kenya. His equilibrium is exploded by the murder of his idealistic,younger wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz). As headstrong in her activism as she iseffervescent and sensual as a person, she represents Quayle's polar opposite.
With the assistance of alocal doctor, she pieces together some ugly truths about the pharmaceuticalindustry testing new drugs without the informed consent of a Kenyan workingpoor whose lives are seen as already dispensable.
Unfolding in flashbackstyle, the film recounts Justin and Tessa's heated courtship and slow slideinto disconnection; her aid work and attempts to get reports recognized bySandy Woodrow (Danny Huston), the British High Commission's Head of Chancery,and his boss back home, Sir Bernard Pellegrin (Bill Nighy); and, finally, Justin'sdangerous, torch-bearing investigation against his own colleagues to clear hiswife's name and get to the bottom of the big business pharmaceuticalconspiracy.
Meirelles brings adifferent, worldlier perspective to a story that could easily be told throughsolely British eyes, and his point-of-view makes for a more vibrant,three-dimensional work. It is difficult to leave this film without the image ofendless sea of tin-roofs that make up one of Nairobi's desperately poor slumcommunities burned on your memory. And you can practically smell the stench ofa shanty existence where effluent runs freely down the mud streets.
He also delights in breakingaway from the constraints of what might otherwise have been just another impeccablyclassy British drama. Using hand-held cameras and allowing his characters tooccasionally improvise their way through the mess of Kenya's streetlife,Meirelles and his editor create an exhilarating sense of vertigo - which onlyoccasionally spins out of control.
Shooting on location inKenya, Germany and London (as well as, fleetingly, the highlands of Canada's Manitoba),and collaborating again with his City Of God cinematographer CesarCharlone (Tony Scott's Man On Fire), Meirelles uses the same restlesscamerawork that made his previous film such an indelible portrait of Brazil.
Among the many memorablescenes is one of Fiennes walking through a shantytown and a new take on therequisite protagonist beat-down when he's getting too close to the truth.
The problem remains, though,of The Constant Gardener's emotional remoteness. Even when, an hour intothe movie, we finally get just a glimpse of a more vigorous and awakenedpersonality in Justin, it comes across as an isolated spark rather than a litfuse. The movie as a whole could have used a major injection of forcefulness.
UK Film Council
Simon Channing Williams
Jeffrey Caine, based upon the novel by John le Carre
Anneke Kim Sarnau