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"The Constant Gardener"

Directed by Fernando Meirelles.
Written by Jeffrey Caine.  Based on the novel by John Le Carré.
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Bill Nighy and Pete Postlethwaite.
Release Year:  2005
Review Date:  9/6/05


"The Constant Gardener", a filmed adaptation of John Le Carré's novel, is good in many areas, and at times genuinely affecting...but something's missing, and even a day later, I can't figure out what that something is.

Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz, who seems more amazing every year) is the "Veronica Guerin" of the story, the protagonist bent on giving the world the truth regarding a new drug meant to treat tuberculosis while she is spending time in Africa sometime in The Recent Past.  Tessa got to Africa in the first place by tagging along with her husband, a British diplomat named Justin (Ralph Fiennes), who is a bit of the naive sort and someone who just loves watering his plants.  When the film opens, Tessa is already dead--the victim of a horrific attack on her Range Rover thanks to rebels who may or may not have been working with a third party.  We bounce back and forth between Tessa and Justin's initial meeting, their love affair, their work in Africa and Tessa's friendship/work relationship with Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), another rabblerouser that shares many of Tessa's sentiments with regards to health care and the human condition in Africa.

Now, about halfway through the film, we catch up with the past to put us squarely in the middle of why Tessa was murdered, and so the second half of the action pits us with Justin and his struggle to learn why all of this went down.  All throughout "The Constant Gardener" the filmmaking is quite strong; directed by "City of God" helmer Fernando Meirelles, this flick has many quiet moments of power, thanks to the sight of hundreds of Africans just going about their business, or aerial shots of African countrysides, or Fiennes doing what he does best (act his slimmy white ASS off), playing the firm-yet-feeble Justin with a ton of vulnerability mixed with the tunnelvision follow-through necessary to complete his investigation.  Every single performance gives you a little somethin'-somethin'; whether it is Bill Nighy (who I loved in "Love, Actually") as a dirty politician or Danny Huston as Justin's lawyer Sandy--hammin' it up while also being slightly dirty--the roles are written well and the acting is there to back it all up.

But then, I thought, "Back all of what up?"  See, "The Constant Gardener" is a tough one because it is technically brilliant; it is very artsy, it features a well-written plot, it is performed without flaw.  In fact, upon leaving the theater, both my buddy Yac and I thought the movie was good, and we heard others murmur similar thoughts, or like one guy that walked out in front of me said, "Yeah, you know, it was DONE really well."  I think people had these thoughts and not ones of higher glory because of two things, two things that bring the movie out of Opening Weekend territory and down a notch:

-->The conspiracy theory.  In real life, I like conspiracy theories, usually because I didn't come up with them and they are interesting to learn about in terms of why someone based them in fact.  (Current favorite: someone at work read a story about how white people intentionally let the levies break in historically-black areas of New Orleans during Katrina.  Can't explain it, but makes for fun watercooler discussion.)  But, in a movie like "The Constant Gardener", you are hoping for something more original than Pharmaceutical Companies Are Out to Rule the World.  See, I think that pharma firms ARE about to take over the world, and any sane man that looks at the price of drugs and health care in this country and many others will say the same thing.  As such, I found myself oddly unattached to the emotional level with which movie-Justin fights back against the people responsible for Tessa's murder.  How to correct this:  maybe make the killers less of a conglomerate, with similar evil thoughts but a more down-to-earth face?  I don't know, but Pharma Man Corporate Domination wasn't working.

-->Tessa.  Weisz is so good that you almost forget how many times you have seen this character or some shade of this character, so at least they pull out the suspense by killing her off right away.  But even after her death, I didn't feel all that bad that she got it the way she did; I did feel bad that all of the people in the film that were supposedly trying to help Tessa achieve her goals hosed her, which I saw coming all along and made her early-in-the-movie death that much more useless.  Here's where making your lead character a true martyr helps--when you get the sense that people really would go to bat for your lead activist, the audience is more likely to feel for the struggle of the widowed husband as he tries to track down her killer.  Hey, that's just what I would have done.

Now, these minor issues I have don't ruin the movie experience...they just explain why it is that this film is getting such good reviews but why it didn't resonate with my soul the way that it would have if just a couple of changes had been made.  "The Constant Gardener" is certainly worth seeing on the big screen and will certainly be a contender come awards season, but I just wish it had that je ne sais quoi that lifts certain films into legendary status.

Rating:  $9.50 Show


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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The "fine print":
All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
© 1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09