Any fear that Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles would turn out to be a one hit wonder are laid to rest by The Constant Gardener, his much anticipated follow-up to the award-laden City of God.
In their adaptation of John le Carre’s bestselling novel Meirelles and screenwriter Jeffrey Caine deliver a thriller that never compromises the passionate political message of its source.
In a remote part of northern Kenya activist Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz) is found brutally murdered. Her travelling companion, a local doctor and fellow activist, has fled the scene and the evidence points to a crime of passion. Tessa’s widower, career civil servant Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), is expected to leave his colleagues in the British High Commission, Sir Bernard Pelligrin (Bill Nighy) and Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston), to sort out the mess. But Quayle, haunted by stories of his wife’s infidelity, is unwilling to trust the matter to them and decides to finish what she started: a dangerous expose of drug company double-dealing and corruption that takes him across two continents and leads him to discover the true meaning of love.
What is essentially an anti-globalisation story is humanised by its focus on a very personal tale of betrayal and bereavement. Both Fiennes and Weisz give landmark performances – no easy task for Fiennes who has been consistently good on screen. The intensity of his grief at losing Weisz’s Tessa is harrowing in its controlled emotion. When he does lose control it is not with the usual Hollywood histrionics but the despair of a man ripped apart.
And what a loss Weisz’s Tessa would be for a man as decent, kind and locked down as Justin. She is full of life: passionate, angry and spontaneous. The two leads are supported by equally strong performances, notable is Danny Huston as morally compromised Sandy Woodrow played with craven self-satisfaction.
Though he draws excellent performances from all his actors, Meirelles’s best work is with Kenya, which is the third player in the Quayle’s love affair. This is a Kenya to fall in love with. Its crowded slums (not so different from the favellas of City of God), its music, its vast, unpopulated landscapes, its poverty and even its corruption, all are beguiling. Suffused with ochre, the Kenyan landscapes sharply contrast with the gloom of Berlin and London, underscoring Justin’s growing despair and paranoia.
Meirelles was not the first choice as director, Mike Newell was, but Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire lured him away. Just as well: he would probably have made a more conventional movie with far less resonance. As City of God proved, Meirelles understands the issues – chiefly the appalling human cost to developing countries of their exploitation by global corporations. He identifies with the Kenyans’ suffering and, as a result, raises The Constant Gardener above the run of the mill love story-cum-thriller it could so easily have been into a passionate indictment of corporate greed. In so doing he has made the must-see film of year.