In his adaptation of John le Carré's The Constant Gardener, City of God director Fernando Mereilles turns his attention from crime-riddled Brazilian slums to even poorer Kenyan communities living under the thumbs of drug companies and "staggering under the weight of not one but three plagues." The political intrigue of drug-trial conspiracies shares time and space with an equally murky personal investigation. The trail's dead end will reveal a drug's true value and either deepen a husband's cynicism or affirm his romantic desire.
Rachel Weisz plays Tessa, a journalist and diplomat's wife who stirs the pot of the drug issue. When she becomes the victim of a roadside murder, her husband Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) finds himself compelled to solve the mysteries of her death and her loyalties. Doubting the relationship Tessa may have considered a "marriage of convenience," Justin explores the possibilities of affairs with doctor and colleague Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde) or Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston), family friend and the British High Commission's Head of Chancery.
Mereilles succeeds due to his energetic blend of on-the-fly realism and colorful stylization; scrutinizing the latter reveals the director's tendency to tart up reality, but the source material is sufficiently emblematic to justify such an approach. Fine acting helps, as does screenwriter Jeffrey Caine's engaging critique of a familiar Western tendency: betrayal by willful ignorance. Caine and Le Carré's sharply accusatory narrative raises questions of informed consent in drug trials, mortal opportunism, and "corporate murder" without providing much in the way of useful facts, but real-world analogues aren't terribly hard to find, and the foreign-office presence of diplomats staring blithely through poverty likewise carries the weight of truth.
The filmmakers suggest action in spite of despair, with Tessa noting, "These are three we can help" (later, Justin echoes her: "This is one we can help"), but by only marginally depicting African characters, The Constant Gardener engages awkwardly with the notion of the "white person's burden." Regardless of the issue of his wife's fidelity, constant-gardener Justin adopts her social idealism and dreams of a world without weeds. In life, Tessa prodded her husband to push the boundaries of his diplomatic career; in death, she sparks his drive "to finish what she started," an ultimate act of love that crosses the border of life and death.
Fiennes brings his unique intensity into play, and he's well-matched with Weisz's Tessa, a keenly intelligent beauty who refuses to be possessed. (Mereilles also makes good use of Bill Nighy, whose stuffy-Brit routine never fails to generate rueful laughs). Justin's quietly powerful emotional journey isn't as action-packed as the film's trailers would suggest, but if The Constant Gardener is a bit staid in its thriller mechanics, it also proves engaging in its drama, amusing in its fragments of bone-dry wit, and suspenseful in its dual mystery.
[For Groucho's interview with Rachel Weisz and director Fernando Mereilles, click here.]