September 02, 2005

The Constant Gardener

Directed by Fernando Meirelles Starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Given the volatile responses it received, whether the 2002 crime drama City of God will stand the test of time is anyone's guess. The Academy Awards first snubbed the Brazilian entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category, but a year later honoured it with four major nominations. It cultivated passionate assessments among some critics and film buffs, a number of whom even prematurely heralded it as the next Citizen Kane. Regardless, it has earned nascent director Fernando Meirelles street cred, an Oscar nod, and a foot in Indiewood.

Although his faux-guerilla filmmaking approach hardly seems suitable for novelist John le Carré's sophisticated international intrigue, studio execs must have figured Meirelles could bring some scabrous realism to the big-screen adaptation of The Constant Gardener. The story concerns British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) investigating the murder of his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz), and unwittingly digging up a global conspiracy involving powerless human guinea pigs in Kenya, evil pharmaceutical corporations and corrupt bureaucracies.

City of God first evidenced Meirelles's penchant for aestheticizing poverty into Benetton ads. As he did with the slums of Rio de Janeiro, he has filmed the destitute Nairobi with oversaturated colours, jerky camera work and choppy editing. Stylizing on demand, he has also photographed the scenes in London with a gloomy olive filter, and stages the Quayles' between bedsheets as if it were a Lancôme perfume commercial. Basically Meirelles is like the Brazilian Michael Bay, only with slightly more sociopolitically-charged material to better inflict liberal guilt trips upon viewers.

In the recent documentary Rize, director David LaChapelle glamourized inner-city poverty to the extent that it often looked like a hip-hop music video, but he stuck to his subjects' perspectives closely. Meirelles was seemingly unconcerned about any of the characters in City, as he irresponsibly exploited true stories to showcase his bag of cinematic tricks. What's more troubling about Gardener is the fact that the director repeats this portrayal only as adventitious backdrop for some run-of-the-mill man-avenging-dead-wife plot. Like Sidney Pollack's The Interpreter, the film employs very real African atrocities merely to enrich the personal ordeals of insignificant fictional protagonists. None of the African characters in either of those films are remotely memorable, let alone able to deliver themselves from devastation without the martyrdoms of their white saviours.

Obviously le Carré is to blame for his deep-rooted disinterest and ignorance regarding whatever exotic locale he namedrops. (In the Gardener novel, he sloppily wrote about some "eastern" Saskatchewan "town square," which is supposedly "three hours' rail ride out of Winnipeg.") Meirelles's sensationalist emphasis on African deprivation only magnifies shortcomings in the author's romantic thriller, while the director's own inability to carry out a straight scene undermines le Carré's strength in planting Justin Quayle's sense of betrayal.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.