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Focus Films

Official Site

Director: Fernando Meirelles

Producer: Simon Channing-Williams

Written by: Jeffrey Caine; novel by John Le Carré

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite, Rachel Weisz


In the last five years, Hollywood’s reinvented the superhero movie by seducing indie directors with large budgets. Christopher Nolan went from overrated chronology-shuffling (Memento) to decent superhero franchise reinvigoration (Batman Begins), while Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi made the X-Men and Spiderman franchises (respectively) their own. Every now and then a critic cries foul at the alleged squandering of talent, but far better for overqualified figures to take on potentially rote blockbusters than, say, handing them off to Tim (Taxi) Story or Rob (Reign Of Fire) Bowman: that path can only lead to Fantastic Four or Elektra. Siphoning off over-praised indie talents and forcing them to give heart to meat-and-potatoes comic-book mythology is a win-win for everybody.

Far more concern should be directed to the middlebrow co-opting of promising talents, and The Constant Gardener is a prime offender. You can see why a canny producer would take Fernando Meirelles and marry him to this material. City Of God was a story of slum life, perfectly at home in the bustling energy of corruption and poverty, and The Constant Gardener is, at heart, a story of the exploitation of Kenya’s poorest. More colorful shantytowns for Meirelles, and at this he excels. There are enough potbellied, malnourished little kids and colorfully dressed Kenyans to sate anyone’s inner poverty tourist. But there’s a whole lot of other material attached to this movie, and it swamps him.

Like the once-lambasted, now-irrelevant films of Merchant-Ivory, Gardener strives for the illusion of depth and “adult filmmaking” without earning it. It’s a movie for people who want to congratulate themselves for watching something other than blockbusters but still want everything spelled out, starting with that labored titular metaphor: Will our hero (Fiennes) quietly tend to the surface plants and wipe out any trouble with the pesticide of ignorance, or will he dig deeper to root causes? Are the seeds of goodness and compassion lying latent within him? There’s a goddamn garden or plant around seemingly every other shot, lest anyone Not Get It.

When tending to matters political, however, Gardener is far more muddled, and not in a good way. First, Fiennes and Rachel Weisz meet semi-cute. He delivers a lecture to a group of students, and she stands up and unleashes an angry, anti-Iraq-war diatribe indicting British culpability in a sordid, oil-greedy mess. Then they go back to her place and have sex. If not for the fact that the source material for the film is a John Le Carré novel, you could be forgiven for thinking that the political will be subservient to the personal for the rest of the film (especially because the sex scene is terrific: instead of the usual fake moaning and writhing, we get lots of giggling at the awkward removal of every item of clothing). But Gardener is off and running soon enough, and it’s hard to tell what it’s up to. It sticks to the outline of the novel—a diatribe about the evils of unregulated pharmaceutical companies testing and pushing drugs by any unethical means necessary, instances of which are well-documented—but reduces everything to uncomplicated Good v. Bad. And what to do when one character describes the companies involved as an “axis of evil”—mark it off as an unlikely coincidence, or assume that the film has a larger anger about governmental culpability in the unethical practices of private companies, and the whole damn affair is really about the war in Iraq and the abuses of power? Gardener’s politics are absolutely inscrutable—beyond the fact that Fiennes develops a conscience and turns Good, while he is on the run from men who are very Bad because they killed his wife and tortured and murdered a doctor who tried to expose their malfeasance, etc. There are no real issues here, just the pretense: It’s really just White Hat vs. Black Hat, again.

Hardly more helpful are the dated, stiff mannerisms of the Brits involved. There’s a character named Sandy (Huston) whose first words are “Look, old chap” and a very stiff-upper-lip Fiennes who responds to being told of the death of his wife with, “It’s good of you to tell me, Sandy. Can’t have been easy.” Very pukka sahib… and, in this day and age, slightly implausible. Maybe the diction of colonial Britain lives on in the UK’s latter-day ambassadors, but it all seems slightly ridiculous and stilted. Not to mention that the film’s vision of corporate greed—centered around not just bribery but barely concealed murders and intimidation—seems less like the fictionalized journalism Le Carré specialized in during the Cold War and more like (as one character describes a trouble-making report in the film) “a lot of inspired guesswork.” Except possibly not completely inspired; it’s quite well known that pharmaceutical companies frequently collude to keep prices for expensive drugs up as long as they can, doing everything possible to keep them from turning into cheaper generics, and that corruption and well-placed donations go a long way to making that happen. What’s with all the murders?

Despite the film’s general muddle, Gardener is respectable and watchable more often than not, thanks in large part to the well-chosen cast. Fiennes repeats his last-civilized-Britisher-on-Earth schtick to good effect, Bill Nighy is the respectable face of upper-class villainy, and the underrated Danny Huston makes for a complex and tortured semi-villain. Better yet is a strong woman’s part that doesn’t orbit around anyone else: As Fiennes’ politically active wife, Weisz is frequently obnoxious, strident, and monomaniacal in the pursuit of the truth. It’s a fearsome and convincing enactment of liberal political conviction, and it gives the movie’s first half some much-needed energy. Still, when all is said and done, The Constant Gardener is too polite and well-spoken to really amount to much of anything, but it’s so delicate that middlebrow audiences will probably be suckers for it. It’s movies like this—not Batman Begins—that pose a real threat to the careers of promising directors.

—Vadim Rizov

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