The Constant Gardener , directed by Fernando Meirelles, written by Jeffrey Caine from John Le Carré's novel, with Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston and Bill Nighy. 129 minutes. An Odeon release. Opens Wednesday (August 31). For venues and times, see Movies, page 98. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Don't let the Constant Gardener's Merchant Ivory-esque title put you off, or the casting of über-sophisticate Ralph Fiennes. This is no stuffy drawing room pic. Part love story, part murder mystery, plus a few other juicy genres for good measure, this is a gem of a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen.
Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, the titular hobbyist gardener, an unassuming diplomat less interested in other people than in his passionate wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), who, he learns at film's opening, has just died.
Her death, like everything else about her, fills him with questions, and he begins to look back on their life together, searching for answers. He fell in love with her outspoken political opinions at a press conference. She begged him early in their courtship to bring her to his station post in Africa.
Was she, as slick colleague Sandy (Danny Huston) would have him believe, cheating with Andrew (Hubert Koundé), the African doctor who always seemed to know the motivation behind her unexplained outbursts?
As Justin seeks to uncover the truth, and to better understand his wife, he learns more about the corrupt world he lives in, where corporate greed trumps humanity, and Third World countries are exploited by big business.
In the hands of a lesser director, this might be formulaic or preachy, another picture (The Interpreter, Beyond Boarders) with gorgeous white actors in beautiful costumes teaching us about injustice amongst the underprivileged. Fernando Meirelles, however, has charted these morality-challenged waters before in the brilliant City Of God, so he knows how to protect the audience from the looming soapbox.
Equally effective in handling the romantic storyline, he offers gracefully shot flashback scenes that never veer into maudlin melodrama or excess but do display his skill in building a mood, whether with conventional tools or in the 16mm hand-held camera footage in Kenya.
Even given Meirelles's talent, César Charlone's glorious cinematography and Jeffrey Caine's brilliant screenplay (based on a John Le Carré novel), the key selling point here is the performances, big and small. Huston's perfected the art of the polished sleazeball, Bill Nighy (as a shady politician) could steal a scene from Liberace, and Fiennes, better than ever, effortlessly convey his ever-evolving emotions.
Even so, the real star is Weisz. Cynics like me may snicker at a 30-something playing 24, but age isn't the issue; she has to have the siren quality of a Helen of Troy while still playing vulnerable and enigmatic. She's got that, and then some. People may never pronounce her name properly, but they won't soon forget it.
Fiennes may be the gardener, but it's Meirelles who prepares the soil. A movie for adults, and not a bodily fluid joke in sight.