Friday, September 30, 2005

The Constant Gardener
Review by Sombrero Grande

The Constant Gardener is a masterwork of intricate cinematic storytelling. Director Fernando Meirelles weaves every shot and element for maximum effectiveness while crafting an intriguing story with a complex and mature take on its material.

One of the things I really love about theme parks--stick with me here, folks--is the unique adeptness the most elaborate attractions posses for storytelling. Take Disney’s Haunted Mansion for example; not only does a ride vehicle physically move riders through unfolding scenes but the very ride vehicles dip, turn and twist to direct the rider’s attention to specific story elements at specific times. While watching The Constant Gardener I felt like Meirelles had me in a Haunted Mansion-type vehicle, taking me on a journey through his unfolding story while masterfully directing my attention to one element while disguising or obscuring others for maximum impact. This technique of careful unfolding adds greatly to the conspiratorial nature of the story, keeping the audience off guard for what’s around the next turn. I could give examples here but I don’t want to spoil any of what Meirelles has crafted, so I’ll save a couple minor examples for the spoiler section at the end of the review.

Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) is working for the British government in Kenya when his wife, Tessa (Rachael "I’m not doing any more Mummy movies" Weisz), an activist who appears to be a polar opposite of her husband, is murdered. When Justin, who spends much of his free time gardening, begins digging into her suspicious demise with the same fervor he previously spent horticulturally, he becomes entangled in a blossoming conspiracy surrounding dangerous drug testing on native Kenyans. If you think I’ve given much away here, you don’t know the twists Meirelles’ ride has in store for you.

While you’d expect the film to take a rather heavy-handed approach to the significant human rights issues presented, The Constant Gardener impressed me with a far more complex approach to the problem. When a travesty occurs which does not personally impact you, should you entrench yourself and risk your own life in the fight against it? Meirelles goes to great lengths to depict the good and bad implications of the characters’ decisions, pointing out the urgency of a need for action while at the same time showing the painful consequences of possibly futile involvement. I’d be surprised to find another film better suited for Best Picture of the Year than The Constant Gardener, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets passed over for the simple fact that its not heavy-handed enough for members of the Academy. But then, you already know how Sombrero Grande feels about the Oscars.


Here I’ll share with you a few examples of the subtle cinematic mastery Meirelles exhibits in The Constant Gardener. Justin suspects Tessa of having an on-going affair with a Kenyan friend. A rapid-fire series of twists are set off when pregnant Tessa finally gives birth and she’s shown in a hospital bed holding a black baby. The camera pans over to find Justin sitting quite somberly alongside Tessa. Moments later we hear that Tessa and Justin’s baby died and Tessa is merely trying to comfort the baby of a young Kenyan woman who is very sick. This segues into Tessa revealing that she believes foul play is afoot pertaining to the young woman’s illness.

After a scene depicting several powerful white men arguing during a game of golf, the camera pulls back to reveal a set of railroad tracks and on the other side of those the crowded squalor that the Kenyans must live in. The contrast displayed in that one shot is absolutely chilling.

While the audience is lead to believe the crux of the whole problem espoused in the film centers around merely greed and monetary compensation, at the end when Justin offers the U.N. pilot all the money he has to save the one little Kenyan girl that survived to make it to the plane with him, the pilot still says no. This eloquently reveals the problem not to just be about money but instead about the far more difficult and far-reaching problem of the world perceiving the African natives to be simply "disposable people."


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