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'The Constant Gardener' Review **** 092005
The Work = ****
The film follows Justin Quayle played by Ralph Fiennes as he tries to find out who has killed his wife Tessa (played by Rachel Weisz.) The film zigzags back and forth from Justin's investigation into his wife’s increasingly mysterious death. The back story of Justin meeting his wife shows an instant chemistry between the two and a lightning romance followed by marriage. Things are not as blissful as they appear, however. The more 'The Constant Gardener' shows of the back story of Justin and Amy the less picturesque their relationship seems. Tessa had secrets that she kept from Justin and her secrets occupied more and more of her personal life even as she is pregnant.
Up until now I have described the surface plot elements of 'The Constant Gardener' and truth be told it does not read as a terribly remarkable film. The thing is, this would probably not be a very interesting film were it not for the setting of its story. 'The Constant Gardener' is predominately set in Africa and many of its characters are foreigners from Britain who are either their as government officials or humanitarian workers. Then there is a third group of foreigners: the employees of giant pharmaceutical companies. The companies offer free medicine but there is often problems getting the drugs to the people. When Tessa observes that some of the medication is given along with free Tuberculosis testing she is naturally suspicious.
'The Constant Gardener' is directed by Fernando Meirelles who co-directed the film 'City of God'. Like that film, this one is a sad picture shedding light on real problems in the world through the workings of a drama. Both films have kinetic energy to the direction that helps to keep the pace brisk. In fact, one of the things that impressed me about 'The Constant Gardener' was how its intense visual style did work in spite of it being so extreme.
Meirelles and his crew use high contrast ratios, often extreme close-ups and unconventional center of focuses to great effect. The film is often edited very fast and that combined with the previous elements I mentioned should have made the film disorienting. Well, it actually does make the film a bit disorienting but (and I realize this sounds stupid) it was disorienting in a good way. It kept me on slightly on edge and made focus on different details in the film. What is so impressive is the extreme style of 'The Constant Gardener' would have failed were it not handled so well.
For the cast Fiennes and Weisz are at the center of the film and are both superb. Fiennes, in particular has to run a range of emotions and does so seemingly with ease, always in character always making Justin’s struggles real. He is a skilled actor who has been good in many films (Quiz Show, Strange Days, The Good Thief, etc.) and he makes Justin real and moving. The supporting cast is good, too.
Danny Huston (son of the great director John Huston and grandson of actor Walter Huston,) plays the Quayle’s friend Sandy Woodrow. He brings a calming charm to the role of Sandy who is a man that hides what his job would seem to require him to hide and he does so with a small smile and a quiet voice. Hubert Kounde (who I believe is a French actor but I may be mistaken) does a wonderful job in a small role as Arnold Bluhm, Tess’s coworker and confidant. Bill Nighy (who I last saw playing the vampire Victor in 'Underworld') plays Sir Bernard Pellegrin a smarmy British official who seems to ooze sleaze. Donald Sumpter pops up in a small role as a British Secret Agent Tim Donohue. He adds a weight to the role and acts like a man who knows everything and as a result is not worried or upset by anything that comes across his path. Lastly, Pete Postlethwaite pops up in a small role as a man with connections to a big pharmaceutical company.
The movie is clever the way it repeats lines of dialogue and sequences as their meaning changes. Several times, I was shown a detail onscreen and would think something about it only to find out it has different meaning later. (Such as a scene where Tessa is nursing a child, what the scene implies and then eventually what it reveals is happening are two different things.) All of the elements of the film work well together and none of the twists or camera tricks ever seem cheep.
I really enjoyed 'The Constant Gardener' and can recommend it but I found it a sad and haunting film. I want to mention one line of dialogue in particular but it is a major spoiler. This is your last warning, DO NOT READ THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE! Towards the end of the film when Justin sits on the rocks awaiting his fate he says to his deceased wife: “I know all you’re secrets Tess.” That scene in all its implications and the way it was done just broke my heart.
'The Constant Gardener' is a very well made film. It is also a sad one that deals with some real problems in Africa. It handles all of its elements so well that at times it seems almost like a documentary. It plays the drama-mystery and never seems cheap and never short changes any elements in the film. This one is recommended but like I said it is not a happy one.
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