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Gardener’ a gripping experience

Mary Squillace | Tuesday, April 11, 2006

In a world where popular cinema has become synonymous with the special effects-driven and action-packed formulaic plots of the Hollywood blockbuster, “The Constant Gardener” comes as an enormous relief. Unlike most contemporary dramas, this film is able to take the audience on a truly gripping journey without the “race against the clock” and “world on the brink of disaster” gimmicks that have become so familiar to moviegoers. Instead, “The Constant Gardener” replaces these conventions with a story that not only gets the viewers’ adrenaline pumping, but is socially and emotionally engaging as well.

“The Constant Gardener” tells the story of Justin Quayle (Raph Fiennes) and his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz). When Justin’s role as a British diplomat moves the two of them to Africa, Justin settles quietly into his position, occupying himself with his garden in his spare time. Tessa, on the other hand, picks up more perilous hobbies. Passionately invested in a variety of Amnesty International-esque organizations, she takes on a mysterious project that appears to culminate in her brutal murder.

Upon his beloved Tessa’s death, Justin embarks on a quest to uncover his wife’s secrets. As Justin begins to delve into details of his late wife’s personal past, he finds himself rapidly confronted with the disturbing and dangerous truth behind one corporation’s ascent.

The film, which begins with Tessa’s death and then cuts between scenes from the past and present, is immediately engaging and maintains its momentum all the way to the final scene. Laced with tiny mysteries, “The Constant Gardener” requires the viewer’s full attention and rightfully captures it with its narrative. Heightening the effects of the action-oriented side of the film – in which a seemingly omnipresent villain trails Justin as he races across two continents for answers – is the distinctly emotional aspect of the film.

Central to this emotional appeal is its focus on Justin and Tessa’s relationship. The romance between the characters is more than a convention set-up in order to infuse the story with a sexy subplot. Here the character interactions emit a palpable chemistry and ultimately generate incredible sympathy for Justin, the protagonist.

The characters are also largely responsible for the fresh feel to this drama. Breaking with convention of popular cinema, Justin is a somewhat accidental hero, lacking in the self-awareness and bravado of typical protagonists.

Fiennes approaches this role with subtlety in order to convey Justin’s mild-mannered but emotionally complex personality. Though ultimately Justin exhibits courage, it is clear from Fienne’s performance that his every action is mediated not by the overwhelming sense of righteousness and masculinity that drives so many of Hollywood’s heroes, but with the same sensitivity with which he tends to each one of his precious plants.

Likewise, Weisz, proving herself worthy of the Academy Award acclamation she received in March, brings Tessa to life. Her apparent comfort with this role allows her inhabit both Tessa’s uncontained passion and down-to-earth attitude.

Nearly upstaging both actors’ performances are the visual elements of “The Constant Gardener.” Coming from director Fernando Meirelles and cinematographer Cesar Charlone – two of the minds behind the beautifully shot “City of God” – the stunning visuals of this film come as no surprise. Sweeping pans and wide shots of the Kenyan landscape punctuate the film, enhancing the narrative’s ability to captivate its audience.

However, the constant presence of Africa in the film’s background is more than just eye candy. While the events in the film are fictional, “The Constant Gardener” fulfills its social responsibility to point out some serious issues plaguing Africa. Not only does the film succeed in garnering the viewers’ compassion for its lead characters, but it also effectively draws the audiences into this distant culture. It provokes, at the very least, some consideration to the needs of those living on the continent we so often forget.

Ultimately, “The Constant Gardner” forces us to remember that it doesn’t necessarily take a series of explosions and a rugged, muscled protagonist to put us on the edge of our seats and make our hearts pound. The film has an emotionally and socially significant story arc that builds to a satisfying and poignant conclusion, one that allows the film to make a lasting mark on the hearts and minds of its audience.