Passion, politics and peril in Africa

`The Constant Gardener' sows powerful emotions

MovieReview

August 31, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

A thriller from the inside out, a romance from the outside in: that's the double-edged brilliance of The Constant Gardener.

This is a love story about a gentle British diplomat, Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), and his fierce activist wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), who come to disaster - and to a rare unity - when he's posted to Kenya and she crusades, with increasing urgency, for political and medical aid and reform.

The movie begins with the tragedy of her murder on a research trip. Rumors spread that she was having an affair with an African doctor who became her constant male companion. But the way Fiennes and Weisz play their characters, with supreme naturalness and conviction, infidelity is almost beside the point. Both the personal and the political stories are about the healing that can come only after bloodletting and sacrifice.

In flashback, we learn along with Justin how Tessa stumbled onto the atrocity that Western pharmaceutical companies use African populations as guinea pigs. What Justin comes to terms with - and embraces - is the realization that her elusiveness and secretiveness protected him far more than he could ever protect her.

In a performance of limpid yet stabbing emotion, Fiennes shows the valor of a temperate, tender man who won't relent in his pursuit of the truth. Justin's quest to finish Tessa's investigation becomes his final act of love for her, and, even more crucially and movingly, his ultimate way of knowing her.

Weisz delivers a bit of acting genius as Tessa. It is a towering characterization: a portrait of a woman whose thirst for justice leads her beyond conventionality or propriety. She wears her passionate integrity not as armor, but as a magic veil. Her feelings for Justin blazes through that veil, and it leaves him a trail to follow when she's gone.

With her dark hair, pale skin and flashing eyes, this actress has always had a marvelous, enveloping ambience, and in Enemy at the Gates (2001), she and a never-better Jude Law generated a furtive sexual chemistry that was extraordinary. But in The Constant Gardener, she's amazing. Like Brando in The Godfather, she dominates the movie by holding back as much as she gives out. Her absence is as powerful as her presence.

She doesn't idealize Tessa, who, despite nearly foolproof feelers, can't always contain her contempt or read the danger level of a room. And Fiennes doesn't sentimentalize Justin, whose softness sometimes can signal a pitiful retreat. It's equally touching and off-putting when he thanks Tessa after they make love. Weisz, as Tessa, bristles. She knows that Justin uses gratitude and politesse as a way of keeping his distance from everyone.

The Constant Gardener grabs you immediately because of the actors' daring plunge into each character - at times, into each other's characters. But it keeps growing in potency because of the way director Fernando Meirelles immerses them in real and complicated environments, which cloak ethics in duplicity and cause fraud to parade as virtue.

Adapted with a crafty ruthlessness by Jeffrey Caine from John le Carre's sprawling 2001 novel, the script tracks a nightmare skein of profit and corruption that crisscrosses the globe. As Meirelles proved in City of God (2002), few filmmakers are better at using a dynamic camera to show the strands of destructive social forces snagging characters in an intricate parabola of doom.

But City of God sometimes felt forced and heartless in its flood of incident. The Constant Gardener has a harsh emotional bloom along with its rush of ideas, and neither the emotions nor the ideas are predictable. This movie is a progressive piece of fiction that questions the limits of diplomacy. It's a love story where the essential act of faith takes place after one lover dies.

It's a movie at once political and protean. It keeps unfolding in your heart and mind after the screen goes black.

The Constant Gardener

Starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz

Directed by Fernando Meirelles

Released by Focus Features

Rated R (language, violent images, sexual content/nudity)

Time 128 minutes

Sun Score **** (four stars)

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