Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) finds himself oddly attracted to Tessa (Rachel Weisz, "Constantine"), the feisty young woman who peppered him with `inconvenient' questions during his lecture. As the hall empties, he approaches her and they begin a torrid affair. Justin's duties as a mid-level ambassador call him to Africa and Tessa asks to come along as his wife. Acclimating to his new surroundings, Justin tends to his gardening as Tessa becomes involved with the local community. Soon, she uncovers a conspiracy that may involve the government and a huge corporation. When she is discovered murdered, Justin begins to make inquiries, and decides to finish what his wife started.
"The Constant Gardener", based on the bestseller by John Le Carre and directed by Fernando Meirelles ("City of God"), is a very well-made, intriguing, adult thriller. Perfect fare for the Fall Oscar season but the studio apparently felt so strongly in the film, they decided to release it at the end of the competitive summer season. I hope it finds an audience. I also hope it is remembered during awards season.
Meirelles, who directed the great film "City of God", about a gang of young men in Brazil's slums trying to survive, seems to be the perfect choice to capture "Gardeners" sun-drenched African vistas. The director has a unique visual style, providing interesting detail which doesn't seem obtrusive or distract from the narrative. Exterior scenes are drenched with light, washing out most blues and greens, revealing hot colors like red and orange. On the other hand, interior scenes are predominately blue and gray. This may not seem revolutionary, but the technique used aids the look well. Depending on the amount of light, some scenes are more saturated than others, creating a consistency throughout.
Meirelles also uses other interesting techniques. For instance, in one scene, Quayle is making a long journey by car. The camera is positioned in the passenger seat, looking out over the hood of the car, which fills the screen. As the journey progresses, a street corner approaches, there is a long fade, then another street corner with different people. This visual touch adds a level of interest to a scene which could be rather boring in other hands.
The film is told in a way that expertly mirrors the unsettled state of Quayle's character. Because the film is, more or less, his journey, it seems only fitting that the director would attempt to take the viewer into Quayle's head. The film starts with Tessa's murder and we follow Quayle as he unravels the secrets behind her death. Throughout, we see flashbacks to his life with Tessa, learning more about her. As the story and journey become more consuming, the flashbacks become more surrealistic. Occasionally, he thinks that Tessa is in the room with him. Some people who read this description may think that the film will be difficult to follow, but if anything, this timeline aides in out understanding of everything.
Fiennes is, as always, great. A meek diplomat, he initially seems unsettled by most things, including his new, very forward wife, taking refuge in his hobby, gardening. After they are married, he is disoriented by her energy and tenaciousness. As they move to Africa, he becomes unsettled by his new surroundings, finding refuge in his wife and his hobby. But after her death, as he begins to uncover the secrets she uncovered, he seems to fall more in love with her, appreciate her more, become more like her. This isn't to say that he didn't love her from the beginning; he just didn't understand her as well. As he becomes more embroiled in the conspiracy he changes to become more like her, understanding her more. The performance is extremely subtle, and believable, yet moving and completely natural.
Rachel Weisz is also very good. She has a more difficult role as everything she does is experienced by the viewer in flashback. She has to create an indelible, interesting character from the first moment we see her, or else we don't care about what happens to her. She does this by making us appreciate her; during Quayle's lecture, she begins to pepper him with nasty questions about the government. Most people in the audience titter a little, shocked that the lecture was interrupted, but they soon turn against her. After the lecture, Quayle approaches her and they go on a date. Meirelles uses a series of images to depict their first sexual encounter and I have to tell you, it's an erotic scene. Not because he shows a lot of graphic detail, but because he shows a series of quick shots of various body parts, yet, somehow, the shots seem to linger, almost suggestively. In one shot, Tessa's leg is raised in the air as Quayle removes her stocking. What these series of shots convey is their mad infatuation with each other. Later, she visits Quayle's office and he literally drops everything to give her his undivided attention. Weisz conveys that she genuinely loves Fienne's character and we form an attachment to her.
The cast is filled with a number of great supporting characters who add to the mystery. Danny Huston ("The Aviator", "Birth") plays Sandy, Quayle's associate who may have had a hand in the mystery. Bill Nighy ("Love, Actually") is featured in a rare dramatic turn. And Pete Postlethwaite ("Dark Water", "The Shipping News") makes an impact in a particularly brief role.
"The Constant Gardener" is that rare thing, a film for adults that contains great performances, great writing, fashioned with skill that actually makes you think about something other than car chases or dumb comedy.