Friday, September 02, 2005

REVIEW: The Constant Gardner

Note: No matter how hard I try, some of this will be considered spoiler territory. Read at your own risk.

A few years back, Fernando Meirelles had the kind of big-time debut that every rising filmmaker dreams of with "City of God." After knocking critics and audiences (myself included) on their asses with that Brazillian-set crime epic, he takes a different path here with a British-centric political thriller based on a novel by John L'Carre.

Well... not totally different. The story mostly unfolds in a series of ever-worsening Third World slums, terrain Meirlles certainly mastered the cinematic rendering of in "City." And he's still using that high-contrast film stock and stream-of-conciousness editing that fellow filmmaker Tony Scott has fallen so disasterously in love with.

The plot-proper must be related carefully in order to minimize spoilers: British High Council diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) learns that his globe-hopping activist wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) has been found murdered in Africa. More than a few details of the situation don't add up to Justin's meticulous sense of order (the title is literal, he gardens all the damn time) so he goes looking for answers. Instead, he finds a conspiracy involving the British government, "Big Pharma" (that's "drug companies" to those of you not fluent in protest-ese,) African AIDS patients and assorted other interests too numerous to explain. Suffice it to say, the Big Bad Wolf of Western Capitalism is twirling it's mustache in the direction of The Poor once again, and once again it's up to guilt-ridden Western idealists to save the day (and cleanse their own consciences in the process, of course.)

Yes, here is another in the popular subgenre of political-intrigue stories which aim both to chide Western audiences for their "complacency" amid international tragedies while at the same time reassuring them that just a little pluck and determination on their part is all that will be needed to set things right again. It's "arrogant" to imagine you're the only people who can run the planet, but apparently not to imagine you're the only people who can save it. This sort of fable was exaggerated to it's most absurd point earlier this year in "The Interpreter," which featured a heroine who fought passionately for "her homeland, Africa" who was played by... Nicole Kidman.

That, the "message" portion of the film, is the portion that is most problematic. The story is staged as the unraveling of a mystery, but the intended messages shove their way into view so early that too many of the still-to-come answers become too easy to guess. What's going on, who's behind it and even why are telegraphed much too early, and combined with the temporally-scattered editing style we're often left too far ahead of Fiennes' character who's supposed to be our "leader" through the story.

To the good fortune of the movie and it's audience, though, that problematic portion is largely a secondary concern of the overall work. Messages aside, the film is really about studying Fienne's layered character transformation: His Justin Quayle had always loved Tessa but never fully "understood" her bleeding-heart passion for activism among the African poor, but in uncovering the conspiracy she'd been battling he comes to finally "get" her eccentricities in full and, yes, he finds himself more in love than ever. It's an intriguing, if melodramatic, arc to follow; and Fiennes proves up to the challenge: Contented British stoicism hasn't morphed into make-it-up-as-I-go heroic zeal this enjoyably since "Brazil's" Sam Lowry.

Praise is also in order for Weisz, who has the tough job of inhabiting a character we "know" primarily through flashbacks and other characters' memories. It goes without saying that the film is just a bit too in love with Tessa, affording her the eventual gloss of a martyred saint, (another activist character is actually crucified, just in case the point is lost on anyone,) credit goes to Weisz that we're allowed to understand why her character was found to be so infuriating, puzzling and often downright obnoxious by a lot of the cast. We're asked to admire Tessa's zeal, but for the most part we're not required to see her manner or methodology as entirely correct: When Justin is shown losing patience with her, the film never demands the audience "take a side."

When the film's character drama, with Quayle being led through the maze of intrigue by the "ghost" of Tessa's memory, is allowed to control the direction the film flourishes. A pity, then, that it's so often stopped or diverted by the bludgeoning hammer of it's agenda...

...or by it's director's troubling tendency to show off his skills at innapropriate junctures, for that matter: The back-and-forth narrative proves that Meirelles knows his way around a fractured outline, for sure, but it also ends up tipping too many "secrets" of the story too early. And one scene, set in a hospital and involving an African baby, uses a series of cuts to play a pointless (and slightly cruel) "gotcha" on the audience. Still, there's no denying that he's a striking talent. The grim but beautiful tableaus of blighted landscapes and teeming slums, presented in deceptively-naturalistic hand-held cinematography pratically turn the continent of Africa into a supporting character in the film.

Overall, the persisent flaws of ham-fisted political moralism and overly-broad directorial scope start to crop up as the film builds to it's conclusion, but overall the film remains a very well-made and thoroughly ambitious bit of intrigue. This is a good movie, problems and all, featuring some stellar acting and a cracking-good sense of visual asthetic. In a period that's been particularly blooming with message-movie thrillers about the plight of Africa, "Gardener" rises not quite to the level of "Hotel Rwanda" but FAR above "The Interpreter." Reccomended.