A stylistic puzzler


Eschewing the unfortunate title (who would have thought a film called "The Constant Gardener" would be an insightful and original twist on the traditional political thriller) the film reviewed here is an achievement of modern cinema. Certainly the ideas of revenge, fighting for love, and political intrigue are not original, but the way they are presented is artful marked by deep performances by great actors.

The audience's perspective during "The Constant Gardener" is one that changes based on the information revealed by the filmmakers. In truth, I was in a perpetual state of confusion during the first hour of the film as I attempted to put together the pieces of the story. But the way the movie is structured, the writers give you just enough rope to hang yourself with, or just enough information to come to the wrong conclusion. From that aspect this movie reminds me a great deal (and positively) of David Mamet's "The Spanish Prisoner." Both films deal with corporate corruption and one man fighting against the odds to uncover the truth. And like Mamet's work, "The Constant Gardener" has layers of subterfuge and masked motivations that help build a complex mystery.

It's difficult for me to summarize the plot because my perspective of the story was warped as it unfolded, so I'd be worried about spoiling it for new viewers. That having been said, I'm going to attempt to do just that and not expose too much information. Justin (Ralph Fiennes) is some sort of diplomat for the British government, though what he does is never completely divulged. What matters is that he is invited to the right parties with high-level government and business representatives in Africa; parties where his activist wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) take the opportunity to verbally abuse those in charge of monitoring the distribution of HIV drugs to the poorest areas of the country.

Justin is warned to "rein in his wife" after a particularly embarrassing outburst during a cocktail party; just a few days later she is found murdered, the primary suspect is an African doctor that she went away with, one with whom most people suspected she was having an affair. The pieces don't add up in Justin's mind, and the more he finds out about what Tessa was up to behind his back the more he wants to find out about the circumstances that lead to her death. The first hour sets up the circumstances that lead to the murder (told through a series of flashbacks that get a smidge confusing) and explain how radically different people (a straight-laced, almost boring low-level diplomat who focuses more on his garden than on his life and a radical activist) hook up. Her death launches Justin into the exploration that leads him to see--for the first time--the world in which he lives.

The acting is refreshing in "The Constant Gardener." None of the characters feel stock, none of the situations routine. Justin and Tessa's relationship is complex and the actors who play those characters do it justice. One moment there is love, the next an uncomfortable distrust as Justin probes for the truth about her interludes with a Kenyan doctor. A few moments later there is a sizzling sex scene followed by a breakdown in communication. Ah, ain't love grand?

Stylistically, "The Constant Gardener" is a homerun. Just like the story isn't an A-to-B narration, the film isn't shot or cut in a traditional fashion. The movie's chronology is strewn akimbo in order to leave the audience just a little more than confused as to what is going on; wondering whether what they are seeing is the truth. A lot of handheld photography gives sections of the film a voyeuristic appeal as we, like Justin, see things not meant for our eyes. The chronological tinkering doesn't flesh out as wonderfully as in director Fernando Meirelles' "City of God" but it certainly works.

This review has to be couched by mentioning the amount of times my eyes rolled at the very premise of a dirty drug company that was testing drugs on a helpless, pathetic African population. Why create a multifaceted corporation that has made bad decisions when it is far easier to demonize a faceless corporation and celebrate the revolutionaries bent on taking them down. The film's antagonist comes across not as sinister but as painfully stereotypical, short-sighted, and posited with an obvious agenda. Fortunately that's my only major qualm with "The Constant Gardener."

At the end of the film, you may not like--or even respect--the characters in this film. Because they are complex, rounded (for good and bad), and morally ambiguous (as most people are) it is hard to empathize with them. However the pathetic connection comes from the emotions they put forth; we've all felt love for a person, felt shattered when that bond was broken, felt the loss of a loved one. Because these root emotions underpin a very political mystery story, "The Constant Gardener" succeeds in entertaining.

Presented in a 1.85:1 Anamorphic transfer, "The Constant Gardener" looks like a fairly low-budget film. There is a heavy amount of grain that runs through the entire length of the film, making a lot of scenes look soft. I think that is a stylistic choice since the trailer looks much the same. There are no problems with compression or film artifacts; I didn't notice a single scratch on the screen, nor a fleck or dot.

The default Dolby Digital 5.1 track is a nice listen, though nothing special. The surrounds are used for music and crowd noise in a few, select scenes and the subwoofer barely even makes an appearance. This is a quiet film and the audio track represents that nicely.

There are about ten minutes worth of deleted scenes that flesh out a few of the supporting characters, something that would have benefited the film, along with more explicit discussions of the killer corporation and a few excised (trimmed, really) collage scenes of the African landscape. An extended version of the trippy play included in the film is presented for theatre buffs.

The cast and crew sit down to talk about the process of setting and shooting the film in Africa, particularly in Kenya. "Embracing Africa" is a fairly earnest exploration of how to make a movie in difficult, poor conditions. It wasn't sets that were populated with actors for this film; it was real life recorded on the screen.

"John Le Carre: From Page to the Screen" is a talk with the writer of the literary source of the story about adapting this book, the challenges of making it in Africa, and the process of adaptation in general. Le Carre and the producers all chat during this brief feature about the pains they went through to produce "The Constant Gardener."

"Anatomy of a Global Thriller" is an EPK look behind the scenes of "The Constant Gardener." It's more recap than new information and only illuminating when the cast and crew get to reflect on their roles, particularly writer John Le Carre.

"The Constant Gardener" is a sexy, thrilling, often confusing, and overall interesting ride. Despite the political posturing this film is entertaining. Different elements, including bits that transcend generic trappings, culminate in a neat movie. In the extras, actress Rachel Weisz says that this film lacked the traditional bits of a movie, like hitting marks, and that lack of structure does show, both for good and for ill. Fortunately the former outweighs the latter, adding up to a neat film.


Film Value