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The Constant Gardener

A Political Thriller Heavy on the Politics

On the surface, The Constant Gardener, based on a bestselling John Le Carré novel and directed by Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles (City of God), is a political thriller that takes its themes and context from the complex issues and controversial actions surrounding "Big Pharma", multinational, pharmaceutical companies driven by the desire to maximize profits, often at the expense of human lives. Such complex, inter-related issues as corporate responsibility and government inaction/action in support of corporate malfeasance are difficult to address within the confines and conventions of the political thriller or a limited running time.

Set and filmed in Kenya, The Constant Gardener opens with Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a mid-level, middle-aged British diplomat and his much younger wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), an aid worker, standing on a tarmac, exchanging pleasantries before she departs for a fact-finding mission. News of Tessa's subsequent death ripples outward, initially affecting only Justin's close friend and a fellow diplomat, Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston), and Justin himself. The Constant Gardener then moves backwards in time, covering Justin and Tessa's first meeting.

Assigned to Nairobi, Kenya, Justin settles into a life of comfort and complacency, spending his leisure time in his beloved garden. Tessa's political activism, however, takes her to the slums, where, in addition to witnessing abject poverty, she discovers that a multinational pharmaceutical company is running clinical trials on the poor forced to participate in them. Tessa gathers information with the help of a Belgian-Congolese doctor, Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), whose continuing presence in Tessa's life raises Justin's anxieties and, of course, his jealousy.

Unfortunately, it's when The Constant Gardener shifts its focus permanently from Tessa's work among the poor to Justin's globetrotting investigation, complete with obligatory scenic stops (e.g., London, Amsterdam, Berlin, and back to Kenya) that the storyline begins to lose momentum (likely due to the compression necessary in adapting a novel to the limited running time). Despite Justin's newfound political activism and repeated attempts to hide his identity, the villains (mostly faceless) are always one step ahead of him, raising the obvious question as to why Justin is allowed to live.

The scenes where Justin locates key sources, obtains the next, necessary piece of information that will unlock the mystery, flow by in rapid, perfunctory fashion, often referring to unfamiliar or less familiar off screen characters. Justin's investigation also gets a helpful hand from a conveniently placed hacker/computer genius, Tessa's young cousin, who accesses her e-mail and electronic files with near-absurd ease (he guesses her password on the first try).

More importantly, Fernando Meirelles, and his screenwriter Jeffrey Caine, in adapting Le Carré's novel, occasionally takes a heavy-handed approach to the political material, allowing his characters to turn dialogue scenes into speeches about the evils of multinational corporations, government malfeasance, and, of course, the dangers they pose. In an otherwise intelligent political thriller, Meirelles and Caine could and should have trusted their audience to decipher the subtext for themselves. Meirelles and Caine also shortchange the scenes meant to establish Justin and Tessa's romantic relationship, making Justin's growing obsession less likely to create sympathy in the audience.

Style wise, Meirelles employs a desaturated color palette, frequent handheld camerawork (similar to the style he used in City of God), and white outs or blur outs as transitions between scenes, all of which help in creating a sense of immediacy and urgency to the unfolding storyline and Justin's personal, emotional journey from bourgeois complacency (and obsessive gardener) to radical activism. Meirelles does ultimately succeed in eliciting sympathy for his characters, especially Justin (ably played by Ralph Fiennes, perfectly cast as tortured romantic) and Tessa (Rachel Weisz, persuasive as a committed social activist). Fiennes, in his introductory scene where he learns of Tessa's death, and, later, when he returns to London alone, conveys the overwhelming grief of his character with the simplest of facial and body movements (a credit to his ability). It's in these quiet moments, of a grief-stricken Justin or in the all-too-brief idyllic scenes between Justin and Tessa that The Constant Gardener's real emotional impact lays.

Regardless of The Constant Gardener's commercial or critical prospects, however, one other point is worth mentioning. Given the subject matter and the producers' undiluted, impassioned criticism of the corporate-government nexus, it's abundantly clear that no mainstream, Hollywood film studio would have financed The Constant Gardener (it was produced independently).

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars