Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Constant Gardener

 Most of the time, when I finish a movie, I know how I feel about it right away.  I'm pretty good at articulating my responses, so when I find myself at a loss, it's noteworthy (to me, at least).  I guess that makes The Constant Gardener noteworthy, then.

The film is based on a novel by John le Carre, author of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which I haven't read.  I'll be honest, I'm more of a Robert Ludlum type of guy than a le Carre fan, but for those that are unfamiliar with him, he writes spy novels filled with lots of subtle moments instead of big action.  So, despite the presence of a gun on the movie poster, I assure you that this is not an action packed spy film.  Instead, it is a love story...in the middle of a deadly conspiracy.

Ralph Fiennes is married to Rachel Weisz; he is a British diplomat and she is an activist.  They are in Nairobi for his job when Rachel's character is murdered, reportedly by her friend.  When Fiennes starts to investigate the murder on his own, he realizes that his wife had uncovered a corporate cover-up.  I don't want to spoil anything (the plot is very detail-driven), but the cover-up risks billions of dollars, which always leads to important people trying to cover their assets (see what I did just there?  I'm so clever).

While this film is plot heavy, it is a more character-driven piece than any other conspiracy or spy movie I have seen.  That's partly what makes this an odd film for me.  Most of the time, in a movie like this, you have a spy that is a total bad-ass as the main character.  Or you can go the other way, and have an every day guy  thrust into extraordinary circumstances.  This, though, does not feel extraordinary; it feels all too plausible.  Fiennes' character is the prototypical uptight British man; he tends to repress his emotions and is very understated.  This makes for a realistic portrayal, but it bored the crap out of me.  Fiennes' acting really saved the film for me.  He was able to show a wide of emotions range with limited source material; Ralph Fiennes needs to be cast in bigger movies because he has a ton of talent, but has been using it in too many bit roles lately.  Rachel Weisz, on the other hand, plays a very over-the-top character and brings her down to earth.  Weisz absolutely deserved the Oscar she won for this performance; she should have been nominated for the lead acting role instead of supporting, because she totally could have beaten Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line.  The juxtaposition of the uber-emotional Weisz and the anti-emotional Fiennes is interesting to watch because the characters show their love in different, subtle ways.  Yes, Weisz is dead as the film begins, but this movie is really about their romance and Fiennes' realization of its importance once she is gone.

Danny Huston was good as a back-stabbing scoundrel, although I barely recognized him...apparently, this is his normal appearance, not how he looked in 30 Days of Night.  Silly me.  This is also the best dramatic work I've seen from Bill Nighy, a very capable comedic actor, but a dreadful action star (ugh...Underworld...).  In fact, if the two lead roles were not played so capably, Nighy's work would have been the standout for this film.

The acting is very noteworthy, but the film style is quite unusual, too.  The film proceeds in a dual-linear chronological fashion.  In other words, the plot proceeds chronologically, but frequently cuts to an extended series of flashbacks for Fiennes' character that also occur chronologically; for example, when Fiennes identifies Weisz's body, he has a flashback to the moment they met and as he deals with his loss in the present, his flashbacks proceed in time from that first moment they shared together. Most of the time, when a movie has flashbacks, they are usually just one or two important scenes that add background to a character's history.  The rest of the time, the film is edited so that the chronology is out of order, but there is a sense of thematic unity closure (like Pulp Fiction or Memento).  While not unprecedented (Slumdog Millionaire and the director's City of God have also used this device), telling the story this way made it interesting to watch, for a change.  These two characters should not have liked each other, but the flashbacks show how important Weisz was to Fiennes, which made his actions in the present seem more logical and have more meaning.

Okay, so far it all sounds pretty good.  Why was this a difficult movie for me to respond to?  Well, as technically impressive as this film is, and the acting and editing show how much director Fernando Meirelles did, I had a hard time caring.  Is this a good movie?  Yes, but I don't think I'll watch it again for a long time.  My problem lies with Fiennes' character.  Since he is the focal point of the movie, he needs to be interesting and he is not.  Fiennes is capable of so much charisma on screen, so it's frustrating for me to watch and appreciate his work here and still not enjoy it.  Really, the plot is good, the acting and directing are great, but when the main character is painfully and deliberately plain, it's hard to overcome.


  1. Love love loved this. Though I have to agree, it is a once in awhile watch. Not a I'm bored I'll put this on in the background cause I love it, once a week movies. For me that's 'Go' or 'Eternal Sunshine'. Review them! I demand it! :-)

  2. Well, 'Nony --- I can call you that, right? --- I'll see what I can do about the requests. I haven't seen either of those movies in a while, but I imagine that Eternal Sunshine is still amazingly good and Go...well, I don't recall having such find memories. I guess we'll see soon. Because YOU demanded it!