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THE CONSTANT GARDENER

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Focus Features
Features: See Review
Length: 129 Minutes
Release Date: January 10, 2006

“Big pharmaceuticals are right up there with the arms dealers!”

Film ****

It’s great to know that international thrillers are making a return to cinema. 2005 saw some good entries in the genre, most notably The Constant Gardener. Watching such a remarkably crafted film like this made me realize how much I missed thrillers like this. In addition, it is a most original love story, and in a brilliant rare form, the love story and the thriller plot are indeed connected.

The film is based on the best selling novel by John Le Carre, an author who specializes in international intrigue. This story is, for my money, the most convoluted one to ever come Le Carre. There is a lot of plot material here and, just as the case with the equally brilliant Syriana, you will be lost if you turn away for a single second.

Added to the mix is the amazing vision of director Fernando Meirelles, whose City of God remains one of the most unforgettable films ever made. Meirelles uses his distinct visual eye to capture each of the different settings this story takes the viewer. The film is more than a thriller, but a journey for us and the central character.

The story is told in a semi-non chronological form, but without spoiling the details of the intriguing narrative, I will explain the plot from the beginning. The reluctant hero of the story is Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a British diplomat whose life is altered the day he meets Tessa (Rachel Weisz). She is protesting British foreign policy during a speech Justin is delivering. She apologizes for her outburst, the two get acquainted and sleep together not too long afterward.

The two have soon fallen very much in love with each other. A lot of Justin’s work for the British High Commission has him traveling to Africa. As he prepares for an assignment in Kenya, Tessa pleads with him to take her with him, though it’s very much against regulations. He agrees to, thinking she wants to go along simply to be closer to him.

After spending some time in Kenya, Justin begins to notice Tessa’s slowly escalating outrage towards the medical treatment of the townsfolk. During a reception for a pharmaceutical company, she confronts top level executives with questions nobody seems to want to answer. Her questions relate to the people of Africa and why they are not receiving the proper treatment.

Several days later, Justin receives word that Tessa, while on an expedition with a doctor friend of hers, has been killed. His friend and business colleague, Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston), delivers the news to him. The two then proceed to the morgue, where Justin identifies the corpse of the woman he loved.

With the love of his life taken away from him, Justin starts a personal mission to discover why someone wanted her killed. As we learn in flashbacks, Tessa was indeed wanting to get top-secret information regarding an experimental drug named Dypraxa, which is supposed to cure tuberculosis. However, it turns out that many Africans who have been test subjects for the drug, have died and buried in unmarked graves all over Kenya.

Justin’s mission isn’t so much one of political value, but one of a much more personal one. He has to finish what Tessa started, illustrating how much love he had for her. Before long, he’s questioning everyone, from pharmaceutical executives, the highest ranking member of the British High Commission, who may be very much connected to the conspiracy, and before long, finds himself in the African village town of Loki, the sight of Tessa’s murder, where all the questions will finally be answered.

The globetrotting aspect of The Constant Gardener is as authentic as any movie can deliver. We are with Justin at every place he goes to get answers. And with these locations, Meirelles and his cinematographer create different appearances for the locations, much like what was done in Traffic. The streets of London are shot in steel blues, while all the African location shots explode in hot yellows. Rarely has a single film conveyed a feeling through the very appearance of certain settings to this effect.

And for the two leads, this marks a career highlight. Ralph Fiennes has always been one of our more passionately gifted actors, and his performance here is more than rightly suited for him. And the beautiful Rachel Weisz proves that she’s also a very strong actress with her most outstanding performance yet as woman with many mysterious qualities about her. And right from the get go, you completely accept the two as a couple in love, even if Tessa is keeping certain things hidden in the dark.

Like Lord of War and Syriana, The Constant Gardener is a remarkably executed thriller exploding in suspense and realism. Director Meirelles has delivered yet another fantastic piece of compelling cinematic storytelling. With his two for two record, I very much anticipate the next film to come from him. This is without question one of 2005’s finest films.

Video ****

Focus’ anamorphic presentation of this visually striking film (Full Screen available separately) is so well handled that it does nothing short of immersing you, the viewer, in the atmosphere. The amount of image detail is endless and incredible, as each location setting assaults the senses wonderfully in its look and color. In short, it does absolute justice to a film that deserves it in this department.

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 mix takes notice of the smallest sound detail. For the most part, this is a purely dialogue-driven film, but there are several instances where the surround sound quality takes hold a many sequences based on certain aspects of the setting. The music by Alberto Iglesias is very much a highpoint, and will stick in your head long after you watch, and I mean that in a good way. A solid sound presentation, indeed!

Features ***

A good area of extras, even in the absence of a commentary track. Included are Deleted and Extended Scenes, as well as three very well made documentaries; “Embracing Africa: Filming In Kenya”, “John Le Carré: From Page To The Screen” and “Anatomy Of A Global Thriller: Behind The Scenes of The Constant Gardener”.

Summary:

Beautiful and haunting, The Constant Gardener is a bold and terrific thriller of intrigue that has been translated from page to screen by a top-notch visionary, Fernando Meirelles. It will grab you and hook you in for its entirety, right up to its unexpected and quite beautiful finale. Recommended to all!

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