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United Kingdom 2005
Directed by
Fernando Meirelles
129 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Tim Lethbridge
4 stars

The Constant Gardener

Synopsis: In a remote area of Northern Kenya, British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) lives with his passionate, politically-active young wife, Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz). With close friend (and alleged lover), Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), Tessa becomes suspicious of a large pharmaceutical company providing aid in the region. When she is murdered, and Bluhm disappears, Justin finds himself drawn into her research, about which he had previously been ambivalent, and in the process not only uncovers a high-level conspiracy, but learns more about Tessa, himself and their relationship.

With The Constant Gardener, Fernando Meirelles has crafted a film which will no doubt be described as an "epic", both in its own press and in reviews, and compared to such grandiose-scale films as The English Patient.  At first glance, this is both justified and accurate - the beautifully arid African landscapes are captured in all their glory, the conspiracy plot spans several continents, and the love story traverses death itself. Indeed, in its grandness, it succeeds wonderfully. Fiennes and Weisz are perfectly cast, although by necessity of the plot, it takes some time to warm to them. Those unfamiliar with the novel (as this reviewer was) may struggle with the first 40 to 50 minutes, in which both characters come across as rather unlikeable, without any obvious redemption on the horizon. But rest assured, any such doubts as to the performances will have been well and truly cast aside by the closing credits.

The Constant Gardener is somewhat deceptive, however, in that despite looking and feeling like an epic, its central plot is that of a fairly traditional conspiracy thriller, set over the relatively short period of about a year (as opposed to the generations which tend to span a true epic), and it is on this smaller scale where the movie stumbles. Justin's progress in uncovering the conspiracy is littered with remarkable coincidences and lucky breaks, without which he would have been left entirely floundering. If Tessa had half the luck Justin had, she would never have been killed and Justin would never have had to leave his garden in the first place. For a film which has put such effort into the bigger picture, it is a pity that details such as these appear to have been given less attention.

Another minor complaint is that Meirelles, particularly towards the end, pushes the message (the blindness of the Western world towards the plight of the Africans) a little too hard, such that, at times, it feels less like a movie than an advertisement for World Vision. This was entirely unnecessary, as only the most uncharitable viewer could have watched without the more heavy-handed moments and not felt moved by the African plight.

Meirelles has followed up City Of God, set in 70s and 80s Brazil, with another passionate, absorbing insight into a world a mile apart from Western society, and one which has been largely ignored and/or taken advantage of by that society. The Constant Gardener is almost the masterpiece it was aiming to be, with only a few relatively minor flaws robbing it of the status it would otherwise deserve.




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