Poignant and beautiful, Fernando Meirelles’s adaptation of the John Le Carre novel fails to deliver as a thriller. The film is used as a treatise on the horrific state of affairs in Africa. The always great Ralph Fiennes stars as humble British diplomat Justin Quayle. His duties are never specified, but he is placed on assignment in Kenya. Rachel Weisz costars as Tessa Quayle, Justin’s free-spirited and benevolent wife. They meet after arguing politics and marry after a whirlwind romance. Tessa accompanies Justin to Africa. Her goodwill is spurred into action by the appalling poverty of the local people. Tessa, along with an African doctor, mysteriously engages shadowy figures while Justin works and idles away in his garden. It is only after she is brutally murdered does Justin leave his garden and search for the conspiracy that Tessa tried to uncover.
The majority of the film is told in flashbacks narrated by Justin. It begins with Tessa’s death and works backward. Fernando Meirelles uses this structure to build suspense in the story. He wants to engage you by focusing on the murder, but interweaves a myriad of complex social issues at the same time. He is effectively using the plot to show the scope of the crisis in Africa. This is the film’s great success. Meirelles has a great eye and fills the screen with panoramic shots, both beautiful and heart-wrenching at once. The Constant Gardner is the follow-up film for Meirelles after his Oscar nominated work on “City of God”. He has proven that he is a director with a focus on social injustice and brings that dogma, quite brilliantly, to The Constant Gardner.
The murder mystery loses steam significantly throughout the film. Meirelles’s concentration on Africa takes a great deal of suspense away from the plot. There is a letter that is established early-on as a key piece of evidence. It is the missing link to a chain of events that point directly to the villain of the piece. The problem is that the letter, which is Justin’s initial goal, is forgotten about until the very end. It basically pops up as the finale to the film. Normally, this is a sign of a sloppy script and poor direction. I’ll give the filmmakers a pass because it’s obvious that the murder itself is only a tool used to expose their African agenda. A leaner film might have been able to accomplish both goals, but Meirelles is known for his epic scope. I can’t imagine him editing out any socially pertinent scenes.
Ralph Fiennes has mastered quietness in a role. His character is a reserved man facing down the guilt of his inaction. He is haunted by his wife’s memory. His tortured look and quiet perseverance speak volumes of grief on screen. Fiennes is a highly-skilled tactician of the unspoken. He understands that Justin is not verbose or emotive. His journey is a harsh one and Fiennes consummately stays in character. He is truly one of our greatest actors.
The Constant Gardner is an intellectual film with a purpose. It is thoughtful and provocative, but not nearly the suspenseful thriller it’s made out to be. I think audiences looking for an edgy film will be bored, but might learn a thing or two about Africa and just how bad things really are. Meirelles continues to distinguish himself as a director and notches another beautifully shot film.
The Constant Gardener is out August 31, 2005.