Lately it seems you have to get very far away from American filmmaking to find courageous filmmakers. The directors making the best films this year have all been foreign – and the latest of the bunch is Fernando Meirelles whose new film The Constant Gardener is already doing well at the box office and garnering the steady hum of Oscar buzz.
Meirelles’ was last seen taking the critics by storm with his dazzling City of God, which surprised everyone with four Oscar nominations. He attacks The Constant Gardener with the same vibrant gusto and the brilliant cinematography by Cesar Charlone (who also shot City of God), refusing to be confined by the usual rules of epic filmmaking. He makes his epic, but does it seemingly on the fly – not stopping for anything but capturing his story with a minimal amount of takes.
It stars an understated Ralph Fiennes as Justin Quayle, a British diplomat who would rather toil in his garden than face the real problems of the world, but everything changes the moment his politically radical, passionate young wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) is brutally murdered in Africa.
The story is told from Justin’s perspective – that of a man who isn’t much of a fighter of causes thrust into an injustice it took his wife’s dying for him to recognize. He only sees his own little world. Pretty wife? Check. Good job? Check. Nice garden? Check. But once she’s gone, he’s forced out of his protected world and into a vast landscape of corporate greed and political corruption.
Justin discovers what his wife was doing over there in Africa wasn’t just helping the sick and dying but uncovering an ugly lie – that a powerful pharmaceutical company was testing its drugs on Africans. The side effects of the drug include killing babies and mothers, but it would cost millions to put the release of the drug on hold for a couple of years to fix the glitch.
At first, Justin thinks his wife was having an affair and that as he investigated her death he will uncover that truth: that she never really loved him at all. What he finds is the opposite – her death speaks to him in ways her life never could. She wanted to protect him.
The film dares to speak about things most Americans would rather not think about – the poverty and AIDS in Africa, and what drug companies may or may not be doing to the desperate. Meirelles tells his love story between Justin and Tessa but he’s also determined to show how easy it is to victimize populations in the Third World because no one is paying attention – and those who do pay attention end up paying with their lives.
Ralph Fiennes hasn’t been this good in a while. He pops up now and again in roles that showcase his intelligence as an actor. As Justin Quayle, Fiennes holds much back – his emotional life never finds it way to the surface but remains buried beneath his eyes. He didn’t have the luxury on the film shoot to do as many takes as an actor would normally demand – so it’s even more remarkable that he is as good as he is here.
Also doing the best work of her career, Rachel Weisz is the film’s beating heart – a woman so stubborn and attractive she could have any man she wanted and further any cause dear to her. Part of the film’s suspense comes from trying to read what goes on in Tessa’s complex facial expressions.
At times, the story feels a bit like it wants to go in a direction other what than what John Le Carre, who wrote the book, dictated – for instance, the film’s title refers to Justin’s constant gardening as a way out his troubles. But we don’t get the sense that he does it to the exclusion of all other things. Surely it refers to the bigger picture as well – white people experimenting and growing their gardens of people in Africa – there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the film to explain what the title really means. But this is a minor flaw.
This is, at long last, a film for thinking adults – a respite from the slew of sequels and movies aimed at adolescents, which is perhaps why it placed third in the weekend’s box office, a surprise by anyone’s standards.It is impossible not to admire the freedom of Fernando Meirelles as an artist – a rule-breaker at heart, he will no doubt inspire dozens of others to break free and tell a story with the same kind of brazen abandon.