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Justin Quayle is a mid-level British diplomat, a mild-mannered, rule-abiding
sort who’s far too civilized to stick his nose where it doesn’t belong.
He’s a nice man, a pleasant man, but not exactly a man ruled by passions;
just about the only thing he seems to genuinely care deeply about is
tending his garden. Then he meets a feisty activist named Tessa, and
promptly ends up in bed with her. He’s so madly in love and decidedly
not his usual rational self that when she asks him to marry him so she
can accompany him on his upcoming diplomatic mission to Kenya, he actually
takes her up on it, never mind that the two barely know one another.
Soon, they’ve set up a little home for themselves in Africa. Justin immerses
himself in the bureaucracy of life as a foreign diplomat, while Tessa,
ever the woman with a cause, teams up with a doctor named Arnold Bluhm
to provide healthcare relief to the local population. Outspoken and fiercely
committed to her ideals, Tessa has a tendency to ask questions that make
Justin’s colleagues uncomfortable; unlike Justin, she thrives on making
waves, and doesn’t bat an eyelash when her work with Arnold sometimes
takes them away to far and dangerous corners of the country. It’s after
one of these trips with Arnold that the authorities discover Tessa’s
body by a remote lake in the middle of nowhere. She’s been brutally murdered;
Arnold is nowhere to be found. Justin can’t shake the feeling that there’s
more to the story than just a simple case of a white woman being in the
wrong place in Kenya at the wrong time, or a crime of passion on the
part of Bluhm. Though his higher-ups insist he should simply let things
lie and let them take care of any investigating, Justin finds himself
haunted by memories of Tessa. As he begins digging into her secrets,
he knows he may learn some things he doesn’t want to know about his wife.
But the deeper he gets, the more it becomes clear that there’s far more
at stake than he realized, as he learns some hard truths about friends
and colleagues, government and big business … and most of all, his own
Political thrillers don’t generally leap to my attention when
I’m browsing for possible movie rentals; too many of them feature one-dimensional
action stars who seem far more comfortable running around dumbly amidst
explosions than doing the intellectual work of piecing together the pieces
of the puzzle at hand. So it’s just as well I found myself watching The
Constant Gardener without bothering to read what it was actually about
first; I knew it starred Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, two actors who
have always struck me as every bit as intelligent as they are pretty
to look at, and was directed by the guy who did the amazing Brazilian
slum drama City of God, and that was enough. Indeed, if you went into
this movie expecting an action-packed thrill ride I imagine you’d be
pretty disappointed. The mystery unravels slowly, and not at all clearly
at times; the story’s told in fragments, with snippets from the past
dropped in from out of nowhere amidst events of the present, and as a
viewer, you have to pay attention to figure out what it all means, and
which characters are on what side of the good/bad divide. Still, Meirelles
manages to spin this complex web of a story with real elegance and style;
Fiennes and Weisz, meanwhile, are sublime and completely believable.
Go into this prepared to be a little patient, and you’ll be rewarded
with gorgeous visuals, great performances, and a message that just might
make you think a little more -- about how often most of us opt to do
nothing because the problems out there seem so great, and what a cop-out
that kinda sorta is.—reviewed
by Yee-Fan Sun
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