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Film Review

The Constant Gardener

(September 4, 2005) So few good novels ever make a successful transition to the big screen, but John Le Carre's Constant Gardener has been brilliantly done by Fernando Meirelles, the director of that great Brazilian film, City of God. Here he takes Le Carre's gripping story, set in Kenya, about love, greed, corruption, indifference, and betrayal, and captures and enhances the complexity of the novel. Tessa, an emotional but determined young activist, played by Rachel Weisz, is passionate in every aspect of her life. We learn at the very beginning that she has been killed, and the film begins to reveal why. Justin Quayle, her husband, played by Ralph Fiennes in a phenomenal performance, arguably his best ever, is a reserved, low level foreign service type, who meets Tessa at a lecture. It is infatuation at first sight for both, then some lovely but discrete scenes of their lovemaking, followed by their marriage. Justin is posted to Kenya, where his wife begins her investigation of what seems like an international drug firm using poor Kenyans in rigged field trials to demonstrate that their drug is effective. She does not tell Justin any of this, and continually embarrasses him at receptions by confronting officials demanding to know why conditions for the poor remain unchanged. Her death is blamed on bandits, which Justin initially accepts, but e-mails and notes suggest an affair with a black doctor who was with her, and is now missing. Justin becomes obsessed with discovering whether his wife was having an affair, and attempting to understand what she was doing. The film, which begins as a romance, becomes increasingly suspenseful as Justin begins to discover that his superiors and friends may not have been candid. His search for the truth is interspersed with moving flashbacks of his wife. The acting is first rate by even the most minor characters, and the dialog witty and informed. When a corrupt officer tells Justin that he is not a very good liar for a diplomat, he replies that he is just beginning his career. As in most Le Carre's novels, few things are what they seem. I will not describe more, and there is much more.

Much of the cinematography is shot with hand held cameras, particularly effective as the characters plunge through crowded slums in Nairobi. The scenes in the slums are definitely not sanitized, with open sewage canals in the dirt streets, and very very poor residents. This recalls Meirelles' City of God, set in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. But there are also many stunning shots of the harsh, yet beautiful countryside, including spectacular aerial photography. The cinematography is virtuoso, with characters shown in tight close-ups, using extraordinary lighting. The music, mostly African songs, is a very good fit here. Meirelles has constructed a film that is a romance, a real thriller, and a powerful political statement. Yet the romance is not subordinated and is the engine that drives the story. Some critics have complained that the plight of Africa was simply a backdrop for a thriller, but it is integral to the story. Many images will remain in your head long after you have seen this great film. This is a compelling film, easily the best this summer, which has seen strong competition. Definitely see this on the big screen; it will be anemic on a DVD. Unfortunately not playing at the Landmark Theaters, but at least this time the trailers are better than usual. Have a great Labor Day!

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