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Constant intrigue

Mystery, a strong love story and solid acting make 'Constant Gardener' a gripping film.

August 31, 2005|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

JOHN LE CARRE has been a writer of literate thrillers almost as long as Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles has been alive. He is a master novelist of the traditional school, while Meirelles, witness his Oscar-nominated "City of God," has a jumpy, edgy, ultramodern filmmaking style. Their methods shouldn't mix, but in "The Constant Gardener," assisted by superior acting by Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz and an outstanding supporting cast, they've joined forces to create a film that grips us dramatically, intellectually and emotionally.

As it turns out, the novelist (whose work was translated to film by screenwriter Jeffrey Caine) and the director have several things in common, including powerful storytelling gifts and the will to make a difference in the world. For if Le Carre's concern with the unhealthy influence of multinational corporations makes "Gardner" an unusually meaty thriller, he is matched by Meirelles' passion for socially committed and intrinsically dramatic filmmaking. Their collaboration results in an intricate yet intimate piece of work that is disturbing for all the right reasons.

In addition to unfolding a mightily affecting love story wrapped in a complex whodunit plot, "The Constant Gardener" poses some stimulating questions. In a world where complicity in chicanery is the rule, what does it take to make a difference, what is the price individuals must pay for their idealism? And where market forces rule with an iron hand, what is the cost to society for being in thrall to unbridled corporate lust for profit?

Like the novel, Meirelles' film (smartly edited by Claire Simpson, an Oscar winner for "Platoon") goes back and forth between the present and the past, as Fiennes' midlevel British diplomat Justin Quayle, characterized by Le Carre as "a Foreign Office plodder," investigates the suspicious death of his impulsive and unstoppable wife Tessa (Weisz), an activist firebrand who was everything he is not.

Le Carre, no one needs to be told, is completely at home in the world of duplicity, betrayal and behind-the-scenes intrigue, and the film continually benefits from having his densely plotted novel and its textured adult characters as source material.

And because Justin, by virtue of his personality and the complexity of his quest, is initially well over his head in his investigations, his mental state is a good match for the disorienting visual style Meirelles and cinematographer Cesar Charlone create. Using hand-held camerawork to create intimacy, Charlone enables us to connect on a visceral level with Justin's confusion, his sense that what he needs to know is just out of reach.

The cinematographer, Oscar-nominated for "City of God," also does a remarkable job capturing the vivid, overcrowded crush of chaotic Africa. "Constant Gardener" was photographed with some difficulty in Kenya, where it takes place, and scenes caught on the fly in Nairobi's Kibera, a staggering shantytown of 800,000 to 1 million souls, connect us indelibly to this unnerving, unforgettable side of the country.

Though the film starts with his wife's savage murder, Justin and Tessa's story begins not in Kenya but in England. They meet cute at his boring London lecture about foreign policy, where she, in an adroit bit of updating, lashes out at him as the representative of a British government that has sent troops to Iraq. She apologizes afterward for being rude, he calls her impassioned, and they fall into bed almost at once.

Justin and Tessa are not the easiest characters to convincingly animate, but the passion and skill Fiennes and Weisz bring to the roles make it happen. Because these two are so finely drawn and so splendidly acted, we never doubt their reality, never doubt the strength of their polar attraction. She feels safe with him, he enjoys being flummoxed by her, and when he tells her he is being posted to the British High Commission in Kenya and she is wild to go along, it feels inevitable that he will agree.

It's hard to think of an actor other than Ralph Fiennes who could bring Justin's mixture of timidity and attractiveness so convincingly to life. A career diplomat who goes where he's told -- "like a Labrador" someone witheringly says -- Fiennes' Justin not only radiates decency, consideration and unfailing politeness, he makes those qualities sexy. Until he meets Tessa, the only outlet for his considerable energy and passion is meticulous gardening.

Completely inhabited by Weisz, Tessa has the kind of personality that could make even Gregor Mendel forget about his plants. It is perhaps the most fully realized performance of her career. Tessa -- a woman who burns about injustice and believes that the world could be changed if people cared enough -- has no difficulty speaking truth to power and sticking her nose in places, in this case the shenanigans of certain international companies, the establishment wishes she wouldn't.

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