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Gardener’ lacks consistency, focus

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, September 14, 2005

“The Constant Gardener” is one of those films that sweeps through with such bristling force that it can fool critics into thinking it’s a great picture. It’s not.

Its director, Fernando Meirelles, is without doubt a great talent – his previous film, 2002’s “Cidade De Deus” (“City of God”) is easily a masterpiece, a term not to be thrown around lightly – yet he seems to be at the root of the problems with “The Constant Gardener,” as his hyper-kinetic style and heavy-handedness seem ill-suited to the material.

The plot concerns low-level diplomat Justin Quayle (“The English Patient”‘s Ralph Fiennes), who meets and swiftly marries a radical named Tessa (Rachel Weisz). The film opens with her murder before flashbacks begin to unravel the mystery surrounding her death. Quayle’s investigation eventually unravels a grand conspiracy that Tessa was trying to uncover, which involves pharmaceutical companies and their testing on African natives.

Jeffrey Caine’s much-lauded script is more problematic than it initially appears. Hanging a love story around a larger, grander framework is nothing new (“Casablanca” did it back in 1942), but the suddenness of the relationship – Tessa and Justin sleep together mere hours after meeting and are married only a few days later – is jarring and mutes its impact.

Additionally, the dichotomy between characters (the good guys are really good and the bad guys are really bad) is startling and insulting in a film so socially and politically aware. Its faux-cinema veritae style would indicate that there is a large amount of truth behind the fiction, but the implausibility of the antagonists dampens “The Constant Gardener”‘s credibility. That actor Bill Nighy (the aging rock star from “Love Actually”) plays the grand villain only aggravates the problem, as it is difficult to take him seriously after seeing him in so many comedic roles.

Somewhere between playing and all-that-is-good Jesus Christ all-that-is-evil Lord Voldemort, Ralph Fiennes found the time to play all-that-is-ordinary Justin Quayle. The former English Patient seems right for this role, a Hitchcockian character who becomes a victim of circumstances as he unravels the grand conspiracy.

Weisz is also quite good as Tessa, whose radical idealism is offset by human vulnerability. The best performance in the film, however, may belong to Peter Postlethwaite (one of the cinema’s very best character actors), who is perfect in a too-brief role as a semi-crazed doctor whose motives are nebulous at best.

Comparisons to a director’s previous work are often inevitable, especially when that director’s last film was as stunning as “City of God.” That picture was a tour de force in the best sense of the term, and “The Constant Gardener” takes the same kitchen-sink approach, but with more mixed results. Whereas “City of God” was ultimately invigorating in its dynamic style, “The Constant Gardener” is exhausting. Its focus is all over the map and it runs too long at 130 minutes, though there are moments of brilliance scattered throughout, most notably a stunningly effective late-film raid.

Ultimately, that lack of focus dooms “The Constant Gardener,” which isn’t as emotionally riveting as it wants to be. It is a good film, but not a great one, despite the critical hubbub surrounding its release.

Meirelles will make better pictures than this, and odds are that he has another masterpiece or two up his sleeve, but those looking for “City of God Part II” won’t find it in “The Constant Gardener.”