Gardener's Question Time
Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that would just like to thank its agent, its mother, the guy who drove the catering van and thirty-seven other people before being dragged offstage by a big hook. Yessirree, it's Oscar time again, and while the constraints of deadlines and whatnot mean that I'm writing this the day before the ceremony, I thought it would still be appropraite to have a look at a picture with a slim chance of Oscar gold. (Alas, the halcyon days when all the Best Picture nominees had already been reviewed here by this point are long since gone.)
Fernando Meirelles' The Constant Gardener is up for four statues of varying degrees of significance. Based on a novel by John le Carre, it is the story of British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph 'Little Sunbeam' Fiennes). While on a posting to Kenya, Quayle becomes increasingly concerned about what exactly his young wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) is up to — supposedly helping out at the local medical station, she is in fact involved in rather more dangerous forms of activism. When she is killed on a trip up-country, Quayle is forced to reconsider how well he really knew her, and embarks on a relentless search for the truth about her death. It takes him into a shadowy world where life is cheap and the lines between national governments and big business become blurred.
Well, as you can probably tell, not a lot of jokes in this one. It certainly lacks the exuberance of Meirelles' last film, City of God, but that's hardly inappropriate. In its place there is a greater emotional depth. The almost palpable sense of outrage at the tribulations suffered by the deprived that permeated City is still here, though, and if anything it's even stronger. Whole evenings of worthy telethon documentaries don't pack the same kind of punch as this two-hour film.
The Constant Gardener works on a number of levels — as a thriller, as a romance, and as a polemic — and manages to combine these elements pretty flawlessly (it reminded me a bit of the 1980s classic Edge of Darkness, without the plutonium or the mysticism, but my mum said she thought it was like The English Patient, which just shows how two people can view the same film in a completely different way). The thriller plot is complex and twisty, and Jeffrey Caine's script does a fine job of keeping it from completely obfuscating itself. The romance is more dependent on the performances of the actors, and both leads are very good. I am a little surprised that all the critical plaudits are heading in Weisz's direction, however, as Fiennes seems to me to give a slightly better performance in a considerably trickier role. Quayle begins the film as a slightly awkward and insecure man, consumed by the demands of his career. His progression through shock and grief towards a new resolve rings absolutely true throughout, with Fiennes managing to avoid his usual faintly detached and robotic style of acting except where it serves the story. The supporting performances are impressive as well: Donald Sumpter commands the screen as a world-weary spook, Pete Postlethwaite plays a dodgy doctor (though thankfully better dressed than the one from AeonFlux) and Bill Nighy turns up as a shady grandee, giving a performance that's very, er, Bill Nighy-ish.
Beyond all this is a rich and sweeping portrait of Africa that doesn't stint in displaying either the sheer beauty of the place and the vibrancy of its people or the depths of its problems — catastrophes so immense they almost defy comprehension. The film makes it very clear that most aid activities in the continent are little more than than exercises in putting elastoplasts on bullet wounds and suggests that they are little more than token gestures born of post-colonial remorse. And it's very clear in articulating that the civilised response to this situation is perhaps very different to the humane response. The film unashamedly comes down in favour of the latter.
So, given that this is supposedly the year of the political Oscars, with serious movies like Brokeback Mountain, Crash and Munich racking up the nominations, how good are The Constant Gardener's chances of bringing home the gold? Well, having considered this at some length, I can confidently say I haven't a clue. I am not entirely surprised it hasn't scored better in the 'big' categories, given that this is a film about Britain and Africa which kicks off with Weisz's character giving Fiennes a comprehensive and clearly heartfelt (if slightly hackneyed) bulwarking over American foreign policy. There may also be the fact that it doesn't offer easy answers or allow anyone the chance to feel smug about themselves at the conclusion. But in the end the awards are surely immaterial: this is a very fine, serious film about the world we live in today. Recommended.
[Editor's Note: At the Oscars, Rachel Weisz won Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Constant Gardener.]