Aug. 24, 2005 - Issue #514: Mysterious Skin
Unearthing the truth
Director Fernando Meirelles digs up a well-crafted film with The Constant
Only minutes into The Constant Gardener, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), the most vibrant character in the film, is pronounced dead, her body found slain in some desolate corner of Northern Kenya. Her husband Justin (Ralph Fiennes), a British diplomat, is given the news with bloodless tact while watering plants in his office, swiftly followed by comments sharply implying that Tessa may have been unfaithful to him. It is only after their young marriage is cut short so brutally that Justin begins to suspect that Tessa was not the woman he thought she was. His suspicions turn out to be true, though not in the ways he initially presumes. Tessa’s death gives rise to revelations that allow Justin to fall in love with her in a way he never managed while she was alive, and furthermore, this love gives an entirely unexpected purpose to his life.
That gives you some idea of what The Constant Gardener is all about, yet in terms of the grand scheme, it somehow tells you very little. Though always in the foreground, the posthumous love affair between Tessa and Justin is only the personal aspect of a political thriller with a broad canvas, a thoroughly damning tale that neatly outlines how corporate irresponsibility leads to human tragedy, or more specifically, how big pharmaceutical companies foster a system of product development that allows them to use impoverished Africans as unknowing guinea pigs.
The beauty of The Constant Gardener, a well-crafted movie for a (hopefully) wide audience, lies in its impressive set of balanced elements. Adapted by Jeffrey Caine (Goldeneye) from John le Carré’s novel, the balance of the personal and the political is constantly busy at work here, the micro and the macro helping the dartingly elliptical narrative unfold in engrossing counterpoint. There are ways in which one aspect brings out otherwise unseen details in the other, and there’s a moral point in this juxtaposition which shows us the faces of all involved, for the most part making those faces mean something. Not every peripheral character is fully fleshed out, and some (like Danny Huston’s) are in danger of being too much a type, but each is acknowledged and examined sufficiently to make us understand how many links are in the chain that separates well-fed bureaucrats from the starving masses they ultimately deem as expendable.
But maybe the most memorable balance in The Constant Gardener is the one struck between the film’s star and its director, Fernando Meirelles, the Brazilian who helmed the international hit City of God. While some actors embody the repressed dynamics of their directors, the tension between Fiennes and Meirelles has the opposite effect. Meirelles speeds things up and jolts his audience with more style, purpose and confidence than most of his peers, primarily through thoughtful use of rack focus, jarring hand-held camera and super-saturated colours (courtesy of cinematographer César Charlone) and a singular, unflinching eye for brutality and poverty. These sensibilities could not be more in contrast with the sort of performance Fiennes delivers as this passive career diplomat forced into action, a performance of contained confusion and emotional impotence.
Yet despite his reserve, Fiennes never has a dead moment on screen; he reveals precisely the right amount of bottled-up feelings or ideas, just enough quiver or pause for the camera to register without alarming the other characters. Though understated, his emotional life is never remote from Meirelles’s gaze, and the result is that Fiennes disrupts Meirelles’s instincts brilliantly, forcing him to hold a moment longer than he would have otherwise, opening a direct line between actor and audience. Fiennes makes Meirelles slow down and listen, and together the two find electric, vividly human moments that help make The Constant Gardener an experience that sticks with you long after it’s done. V
The Constant Gardener
Directed by Fernando Meirelles •Written by Jeffrey Caine • Starring Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz and Danny Huston • Opens Fri, Aug 26
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