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    The Constant Gardener

    Spy, the beloved country

    Espionage and corporate intrigue go to Africa in "The Constant Gardener," a sometimes-strong, sometimes-overearnest thriller based on a John le Carr̩ novel and made by the co-director of "City of God."


    The way Justin and Tessa meet is kind of like the way "The Constant Gardener" comes across. He's giving a lecture (a boring one, as he later admits) on world affairs, and she stands up to give a rant (a rude one, as she later admits) against the Iraq war. Regardless of their merits on the facts, the lecture, the diatribe and the movie itself teeter on the balance between saying something meaningful and spouting self-righteous opinions.

    Directed by: Fernando Meirelles.
    Written by: Jeffrey Caine.
    Adapted from a novel by: John Le Carr•À¸.
    Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Hubert Kound•À¸, Danny Huston, Daniele Harford, Bill Nighy, Keith Pearson, Donald Sumpter, Archie Panjabi, Nick Reding, Gerard McSorley, Juliet Aubrey, Pete Postlethwaite, Anneke Kim Sarnau.
    Cinematography: C•À¸sar Charlone.
    Edited by: Claire Simpson.

    Related links: Official site
    Justin and Tessa fall in love and get married, but not before he, a British diplomat, is assigned to Kenya.

    "Take me to Africa," she dares him in his study.

    "We hardly know each other," he objects, with accustomed propriety.

    "You can learn me," she says.

    It's not certain that he ever does "learn" her, even after the two are married and happily expecting their first child in Africa. While Justin serves Her Majesty all day, Tessa is off stirring up trouble that she barely tells him about. She's active with an international campaign to monitor drug companies' activities in the AIDS-stricken continent, and she keeps her husband largely in the dark about her activities. Justin's colleagues seem to know more about her secret life than he does, and they're rarely happy about what they know.

    The Constant Gardener  
    It takes a long, rather slow-moving time — and the openly foretold death of Tessa — for this John le CarrÌ©-penned caper to take off and reveal its intrigue-layered plot. Flushed out of the pocket by his suspicions that his own superiors had something to do with his wife's death, Justin goes underground to see what he can find out — a path that takes him through four countries and across the path of vengeful spies and murderous militias.

    Packed with spy shenanigans, good-intentioned activists, bad drug companies and Third World awareness, "Constant Gardener" can be both as engaging and as overearnest as you might imagine. To the extent that the movie's issues are a genuine problem (and here's an article that says they are), there are a good number of scenes that make the point, sometimes memorably. Whether diplomats and their families and their friends are being assassinated at the drug companies' pleasure — well, okay, without that we wouldn't have a spy yarn, however plausible or not. Whether the things done right minus the things done poorly add up to a good movie, that's another question.

    It is a good movie, but far from a great one. Director Fernando Meirelles, who co-directed the amazing Brazilian film "City of God" (my No. 1 film of 2003), has added a little magic to "Constant Gardener," but it's a film that his talents may not have been ideally suited for. What he does provide really well is a sense of atmosphere whenever our Hollywood-star heroes find themselves out among real people. Meirelles's marketplaces crackle with chaotic populist energy as he punctuates scenes with rapid-cut glances at the people in the margins, who would just have been considered extras in any other director's movie. But this kind of special eye for the genuine color and personality of a people is not useful in the tastefully appointed offices and eating clubs of the powerful, where much of this film takes place.

      The Constant Gardener
    He's also stuck with a turn-down-the-intensity cast. Ralph Fiennes is a tightly controlled actor, and if his character feels sorrow or anger at the loss of his beloved wife, we barely know it. Rachel Weisz (who previously co-starred with Fiennes in the rather tedious "Sunshine") is appealing as Tessa, but a lot of her best stuff is away from Fiennes. And supporting actor Danny Huston, who seems ill at ease in most of his roles even when he doesn't have to affect a feeble British accent, has no chance in this one. So it's hard to ever really believe in the personalities at play here.

    So "Constant Gardener" becomes a slightly methodical piece of work — more a chess match than a soccer match. It has good ideas — when it lets them flow within the story instead of putting a polemic into a character's mouth. And it has a good heart — but a touch of ice water in its veins. It was worth seeing, but it would be nice to see Meirelles apply himself to looser, earthier, fleshier films in the future.

    SEPTEMBER 6, 2005

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