`Gardener' director brings character to full flower

Director Meirelles keeps rambling plot of le Carre novel under control


August 28, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles immediately won the reputation of being a director's director when his dynamo of a mosaic about the Rio de Janeiro underclass, City of God, opened two years ago. It had an astonishing impact for a movie done in Meirelles' native language, Portuguese.

Its virtuosity dazzled but also distanced some critics, including me. It was Hollywood filmmakers who gave Meirelles his creative supernova status when they handed his film four Academy Award nominations, including one for best director.

He should fulfill their confidence, and silence his doubters, with his first English-language feature, The Constant Gardener. Over the phone from London, he confessed that crafting this movie made him perceive the importance of character.

John le Carre's book was discursive. Your movie is both whirling and tight. How did you achieve your dramatic compression?

We shot a three-hour film that was actually three movies: a political film in a documentary style; a thriller; and a love story. We lacked focus. My editor, Claire Simpson (Platoon), and I decided use the love story to take the audience on the rest of the journey. This process should take place during the writing, but I was scouting locations 40 days after I agreed to do the film, and didn't have the proper time to understand the script. We even shot in Winnipeg, Canada, for two days, then trimmed the scene. I hope it will be in the DVD!

The script already was quite different from the book, which had Scotland Yard interviewing everybody. We have Justin (Ralph Fiennes) do all the research about his wife's murder - much stronger for him, much stronger dramatically. And, on purpose, I took out all the references to the British class system.

Is the movie a plea for more traditional honesty in a marriage?

I feel I understand the marriage of Tessa (Rachel Weisz) to Justin. She's an independent woman who wouldn't be getting married unless she knew her life would still be her own. And she knows when she starts dealing with something that could be dangerous that she has to try to protect him.

But the movie does testify to the importance of faith in a relationship.

When Justin finds out the truth about Tessa's friend, Dr. Arnold Bluhm, he asks his colleague, Ghita, why Tessa never told him Arnold's secret. Ghita says Tessa probably thought that Justin didn't have to know it - that he trusted her enough to know it was nothing that could damage their marriage.

It's rare to see a movie in which the hero is a gentle man.

Gentleness - this is the basis of the character. He lives by a civilized code, and I love the way Ralph plays him. I've always seen him play very extreme characters - really evil guys, as in Schindler's List (1993), or crazy, as in David Cronenberg's Spider (2002). That's what attracted him to this: playing an average guy who lives by rules.

To me, it's most like his role in The End of the Affair (2000), where again he doesn't know the full truth about the woman he loves until after her death. He's extremely effective in these roles - actually sturdier and richer than in some of those others.

I'm glad you said that. We were trying to depict the strength of the beliefs of a man who may have been seen as a bit silly. During shooting, we were always concerned with whether we were making him look too weak.

In this kind of movie, it's the emotions of the characters that pull you through the politics and history, and Fiennes is oddly, heroically poignant.

That's what we found out while we were doing it. It affected even the ordering of the scenes. The script started with Justin on the rocks with a gun in his hand, flashing back from that spot to the rest of the story. That didn't work. Then we tried to tell it in a linear structure. We tried three or four other ways to begin the movie. We went back to the book, where Tessa is killed in the first page. And it worked.

His final utterance of her name is devastating.

We kept taking out the things surrounding that moment, like the sound of guns. When he says her name - that's the true climax. Unlike the book, where he has affairs with his colleagues' wives, the idea is that he has never gotten involved with women. When Tessa demands that she take him to Africa, he steps back a little. Only after she dies does he really fall in love with her.

I think, at the end, he wants to die not just because he wants to join her in death, but because he doesn't want to live in a world that has so deeply disappointed him. The world has the wrong priority - making money rather than saving lives.

Did shooting in Africa affect you existentially?

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