The Constant Gardener movie review, Fernando Meirelles, Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston. Review by Rob Blackwelder ©SPLICEDwire
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"The Constant Gardener"
3 stars
129 minutes | Rated: R
WIDE: Wednesday, August 31, 2005
Directed by Fernando Meirelles

Starring Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston, Archie Panjabi, Bill Nighy, Gerard McSorley, Pete Postlethwaite, Anneke Kim Sarnau, Donald Sumpter, Hubert Kounde

  • Ralph Fiennes
  • Rachel Weisz
  • Danny Huston
  • Bill Nighy
  • Gerard McSorley
  • Pete Postlethwaite

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    Diplomat finds links to pharmaceutical companies in activist-wife's murder in 'Constant Gardener'

    By Rob Blackwelder

    A preachy but gripping socio-political thriller, "The Constant Gardener" captures the parched beauty of African desert nations, personifies the horrors of their poverty in dusty, sunburned detail, and pulls no punches in its view of greedy drug companies that feign altruism but view encroaching epidemics as lucrative boons for their stockholders.

    Based on the John Le Carré novel of the same name, the film's politics are couched in a brutal and twist-filled murder mystery. Ralph Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a dry, charmingly wonky English diplomat whose bottled adoration for his eye-catching young wife (Rachel Weisz) -- an impetuous, impassioned human rights activist his colleagues hope he won't bring to parties -- becomes dangerously uncorked when she is killed and mutilated while on an aid mission.

    Realizing there's more to her death than meets the eye when his inquiries for more information are deflected by even his closest associates -- and suspecting she may have been up to something more as well -- Quayle drops off the diplomatic radar and begins a dangerous amateur investigation that puts him in the crosshairs of corrupt politicians, corporate stooges and ruthless warlords.

    Directed by Fernando Meirelles with the same unblinking, sweaty, ground-level grittiness he brought to "City of God," his brilliant vérité exposé of Brazilian poverty, "The Constant Gardener" becomes an incredible puzzle with far-flung pieces that Quayle must link together with tenuous but damning evidence. And whether he travels to London or hitches a lift with the Red Cross to a remote village in Kenya devastated by disease (in order to interrogate a particular doctor), he's under such constant threat that in some scenes it feels as if any background actor could be a hired killer closing in.

    Through almost lyrical, psyche-tapping editing and dynamic, voyeuristic photography, Meirelles parallels this tension with intimate scenes (both romantic and contentious) from Quayle's courtship and marriage, providing a tender, human driving force for his determination. Weisz ("The Mummy," "The Shape of Things") embodies her martyred character with an appealing balance of femininity, intrepidness and fierce, intelligent determination (especially in her boots-on-the-ground aid efforts, even while pregnant). Fiennes percolates with bliss sublimated by the angst of a man who competes for attention with his wife's other passions.

    But upon seeing her body, these contrasting parts of his psyche forge together into single-minded resolve that threatens to turn self-destructive, as Quayle never stops to think what he'll do with the complete picture of her murder once all the pieces are in place.

    While the film's underlying but overt humanitarian message is likely to rankle wealthy cheerleaders for corporate autonomy, "The Constant Gardener" (the title comes from Quayle's metaphorical backyard hobby) has a handful of real problems as well, not the least of which is potential confusion stemming from the unfolding intrigue.

    It's a plus for the mystery that the audience never knows more than Quayle as he sticks his nose where it's not wanted. But with a large roster of shadowy figures, it's easy to lose track of characters who later become pivotal to the emerging conspiracy. As if to make up for this, a scene late in the film backpedals into raw exposition that is almost worse than the confusion (and fails to clear up the points that perplexed me personally). A smaller jolt of awkwardness comes from a throwaway line about Weisz's character being only 24 years old, which doesn't jibe with her worldliness and extensive experience, or the fact that the actress is actually 10 years older.

    But "The Constant Gardener" has the power to overcome such faults and tell a riveting story while making unequivocal statements about drug testing and pricing, Western aid to impoverished countries, and the upheaval and anarchy that result when the motives for that aid are not pure. Like "The China Syndrome," "Silkwood" and "The Insider," it's a political thriller in the best sense of the term -- turning over crucial rocks, but engrossing the audience with the nail-biting process, not with what it finds underneath.

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