I am a huge fan of Meirelles’ 2002 breakthrough film City of God and am a big supporter of the devastatingly panned Blindness (2007). For some reason, I felt trepidatious about this film since it came out. I think part of my worry was the fear of a “sophomore slump”, meaning Meirelles was moving from an independent foreign flick to a Hollywood producer studio movie. A lot could go wrong. While The Constant Gardener isn’t a disaster, it is definitely a weak film compared to Meirelles’ other work.
The story follows Justin Quayle (Fiennes), a low level British diplomat stationed in Kenya. His activist journalist wife, Tessa (Weisz) has grown more and more distant from him while pursuing a story she is apprehensive to let Justin in on. Everything comes crashing down around his head when Tessa and her doctor friend are found murdered. The Kenyan government immediately spins it as bandits but Justin delves into Tessa’s research to discover a larger and sinister conspiracy at work.
The highest achievement of this film is its editing. Until I really started consuming movies I completely glossed over the importance of editing. Once I did a little reading and self-education I began to see how editing can make or break a picture. In the case of The Constant Gardener without the incredibly tight and skilled cutting, this would have been another yawnfest film vying for Oscar attention. That’s not a good thing. In the moments where editing can’t work around the film’s flaws it comes across an annoyingly didactic. While I agree with the weight of the subject matter, it is a failure because it doesn’t get that message across in a very entertaining way.
There are some very noteworthy highlights though, in particular, the way Meirelles tells us the story of Justin and Tessa’s relationship. Tessa is dead within the first five minutes of the film and, after a trip to the morgue, the film detours for a good 40 minutes with a series of fragmented moments from their lives and from the work Tessa was doing. The dark secret that Tessa uncovered is never explicitly revealed during this sequence but all the information that is important comes across. We know why someone like Justin would fall for Tessa and we question what it is she wanted out of him. On a totally different note, I was impressed that Weisz did a nude scene while full on pregnant, it felt very real and was used in way that showed Justin’s deep care and tenderness for Tessa.
This will not be remembered as a highlight of Meirelles’ career. For one of his films, it is a low point, but its light years better than most “issue” movies made by Hollywood.