The Constant Gardener

John Le Carré’s novels are notoriously hard to translate to the big screen, given their disjointed storylines and subtle, complex characters. 1965’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, with Richard Burton, is probably the last truly successful adaptation of his work.

Until now. Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles (City of God) delivers a timely and trenchant film that does justice to Le Carré’s best-selling The Constant Gardener, unfolding a challenging and thoughtful thriller that’s as gripping as it is romantic.

Using nonlinear storytelling and superbly crafted flashbacks, Meirelles charts the emotional and global journey of Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a modest and unambitious British diplomat stationed in Kenya who tends to both his garden and his idealistic wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), with equal tenderness. When Tessa is brutally murdered, his peaceful equilibrium dissolves into remorse and fiery determination.

Haunted by rumors of marital infidelity and suspicious of his colleagues’ involvement, Justin vows to learn the truth about his wife’s death and track down her killer. He uncovers a vast conspiracy involving a global pharmaceutical company and his own government. More devastating is the realization that the crimes perpetrated by both are as commonplace as they are insidious.

Meirelles masterfully weaves the personal with the political until they become inseparable. The film wraps the audience in layers of international intrigue and suspense while presenting a deeply moving portrait of loss. As Justin unravels the string of corporate crimes that put his life in danger, his relationship with Tessa is re-examined and redefined, constantly altering our perceptions of the truth.

Screenwriter Jeffrey Caine manages to keep things moving without prematurely giving away too much of the plot or sacrificing Justin’s personal growth. It’s an impressive juggling act, more so given the movie’s sociopolitical indictments.

Fiennes gives a terrific performance, portraying Justin’s evolution from timid detachment to impassioned activism. It’s a subtle and stunningly believable transformation of character. Weisz gives a powerful performance as the idealistic and indignant Tessa; the chemistry between these two opposite temperaments is both convincing and palpable.

Shot mostly in rural northern Kenya, director Meirelles shows us a part of the world seldom seen in movies. Using real locations, natural light and an impressionistic style, he captures a Third World landscape that’s truly authentic, more than just another exotic backdrop for a Hollywood story.

It may be Meirelles’ Brazilian background that best informs the story’s Third World plot and setting, offering a perspective that’s less British and more attuned to the indigenous surroundings. There’s a visceral punch to the director’s guerrilla filmmaking style that captures the urgency of Le Carré’s storytelling along with the complexities of his characters and politics.

Provocative and thoughtful, The Constant Gardener confronts the economic and humanitarian crimes of capitalism more seriously than most American films. It’s an unsettling examination of the pharmaceutical industry’s dark underbelly, and the West’s apathy toward a continent where human beings are considered little more than lab rats. It’s a rare movie that attempts to combine suspense with emotional resonance and social relevance — and delivers on all three counts.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].

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