Story is both mysterious, timely
Writer and director form a winning match in creating the film.
By ROGER MOORE
"The Constant Gardener" is a "Bourne Identity" with brains, a mystery with genuine mystery to it and a tale of an ordinary civil servant trying to find a little justice in a world where ordinary people, even civil servants, can't afford justice.
Beautifully crafted, sharply written and acted, it is a spy thriller as timely as tomorrow's headlines. This chilling and moving exploration of trust and guilt and a life repressed tells a personal story of a marriage and the lie it might have been, set against a tale of big government in collusion with big corporations. It shows, by vividly taking us places the movie camera rarely goes, the unsubtle ways these conspiracies play out in the nearly lawless Third World.
Ralph Fiennes is Justin, the gardener of the title, a mild-mannered hobbyist and diplomatic functionary who finds out, in the film's opening moments, that his wife, Tessa -- Rachel Weisz of "Runaway Jury" -- has been killed. She was with another man. And the instant assumption is that a third or fourth man she was involved with did her and her companion in.
That's a lot for a husband to absorb in a morgue in an instant. But Justin gets his head around it and flashes back to the moment they met. A shy, dull civil servant, he was lecturing at a college as part of his job of explaining government policies. She was a shrill leftist student who stood up and challenged him about Britain's Iraq policy, "Vietnam, the Sequel." He was smitten.
Their courtship was abrupt, sped up by his new posting to Kenya and her determination to go there with him. Her social and environmental activism made her want to be where the action was -- Africa. She stirred things up there, making noise about pharmaceutical wrong-doing and sneaking around while she did it. And she stirred him. But all along, he got tips that she was being unfaithful.
And now she's dead. So Justin the gardener, another of novelist John Le Carre's boring but methodical civil servant-spies, sets out to find out what she was up to, whether she was cheating, and who had her killed. He does it out of loyalty and guilt and fear of what he might discover about her.
He does it because this is her last chance to do what she did for him in the first place -- bring him to life.
It is possible to get a bad film out of a novel by the great espionage stylist Le Carre. But it wasn't his idea to put Michelle Pfeiffer in "The Russia House." The author of "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold," "The Tailor of Panama" and too many other filmed and unfilmed novels to name, is a master at soft-selling suspense, at creating characters who keep their secrets and at interrogation scenes that probe and give away layers of motive and intent on the part of the questioner, and the questioned. Likewise, someday Fernando Meirelles, the brilliant Brazilian director of "City of God," may make a bad movie.
But Le Carre filmed by Meirelles make a nearly unbeatable team in "The Constant Gardener." It has Le Carre's quiet menace and sense of an overwhelming bureaucracy that can't be defeated, just resisted. And it has Meirelles' grasp of epic poverty. It is stunningly shot, with over-saturated light and bumping, nervy, close-up hand-held camera work that tells us that this is an alien world we're spying on and that these people matter.
Fiennes is incredibly affecting as a vulnerable, lightweight functionary who discovers an inner resolve through his quest. Weisz plays Tessa as a woman vividly remembered, a mysterious life force to Justin, with each memory refiltered and replayed after Justin has discovered some new "truth" about who she really was.