|Starring:||Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Hubert Kounde, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy|
“The Constant Gardener” is probably the toughest reviewing assignment I’ll have this year. Directed by Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”), and based on John le Carre’s novel, “The Constant Gardener” is a richly stylized piece, and a superb aesthetic exercise in filmmaking. But given that the movie’s center is a grave human issue, it’s disappointing how cold this film feels. Distancing its audience emotionally, “The Constant Gardener” is a work to be admired (the cinematography is absolutely stunning), yet rarely involving enough to truly transport you into its world.
Simple yet profoundly complex at the same time, if one were forced to slap a genre tag on Meirelles’ film, romantic thriller would best fit the bill. The movie focuses on a seemingly meek British diplomat named Justin Quale’s (Ralph Fiennes) investigation to uncover the truth about his activist wife Tessa’s (Rachel Weisz) murder in a remote region of Kenya. A few substantial obstacles hinder Justin’s search — evidence suggests that Tessa may have been embroiled in an affair, and the woman’s work, which exposed the humanitarian crimes of major pharmaceutical companies against the people of Kenya, had run her afoul of some dangerous entities. As Justin’s quest intensifies, he discovers a variety of combustible information that places him squarely in the path of danger.
At its core, “The Constant Gardener” is actually a fairly Spartan story. However, the tale is fractured in such a way that makes it, perhaps not entirely confusing, but certainly challenging on a narrative level. We learn right off the bat of Tessa’s death, but then watch the relationship between the headstrong woman and Justin build, and eventually disintegrate. As Justin’s investigation turns into a full blown adventure (minus any of the word’s positive implications), the rising stakes and frequent plot turns demand your utmost attention — and it’s worth the effort to follow along.
Yet when you take an austere premise and develop it with such storytelling sophistication, the film’s artifice becomes too noticeable. Adding to this problem is Meirelles’ decision to shoot this film so cleanly and precisely. His previous effort, “City of God,” is an unquestionably stylized film, but the majority of that style lent a harrowing immediacy to the movie, which is quite the opposite of what the director accomplishes here.
The film is certainly beautiful to look at. An early scene of passion between Justin and Tessa is shot in an interesting way, but it’s also — from the compositions to the editing to the production design — undeniably sterile, and doesn’t exactly send sparks flying off the screen. From a technical standpoint, the film is so flawless it’s almost unnatural. If a computer was programmed to make a movie, you get the feeling it might turn out like “The Constant Gardener.”
There’s an overt political message to be found, which, like many of the film’s other elements, can overwhelm the characters. Investing anything emotionally in these characters is almost an impossible task, even though Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz turn in solid performances in the two key roles. To make matters slightly more taxing, the film’s downcast mood adds to the, at times, numbing atmosphere. “The Constant Gardener” is not a film I’d care to sit through again any time soon.
And that’s what makes this such a difficult chore to review — I can’t imagine being more critical of a movie that I, almost without hesitation, recommend. Meirelles is an emphatic stylist, but it’s apparent that his aesthetic obsessions run the risk of undermining the other aspects of his movies. Although it’s too early to make a definitive case, one gets the feeling the director’s talents are better suited for subject matter that is more direct and less cerebral. “The Constant Gardener” offers moments where Meirelles is clearly in his element, and these moments underline the reality that, for the most part, this material feels slightly out of his range.
But when you get through with the nitpicking, the fact is “The Constant Gardener” is a solid piece of filmmaking, made by one of the most visually gifted directors to come along in the past few decades.