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Friday, May 26, 2006

Death fails to end eternal love

The Constant Gardener

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Running time: 128 minutes
Language: English, Swahili and German
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

How do we respond to loss? When a loved one, perhaps the person closest to us, has been taken away, how do we cope with that? It's something the movies have turned to time and again, grappling with one of the most painful questions any person must face.

News photo
Ralph Fienes and Rachel Weisz in "The Constant Gardener"

"In The Bedroom" saw Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson's couple implode in mutual recrimination after the death of their son, a scenario that mirrors what happened to Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in the eerie classic "Don't Look Now." Jimmy Stewart's neurotic detective in "Vertigo" imagined his lost lover was still alive, a story that came around again in the recent Shanghai film noir "Suzhou River." More common is the "Mad Max" or "Gladiator" scenario, where the hero turns to righteous vengeance to avenge his loss.

What all these films get right, however, is the idea that losing someone you love so much can make you go a bit insane. What happens to you becomes so less important than what you have to do for your loved one.

"The Constant Gardener," a contemporary thriller set in Nairobi and based on a novel by John Le Carre, sees Ralph Fiennes in the role of grieving husband who goes off the deep end. Fiennes plays a diplomat, Justin Quayle, whose activist wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz, who picked up an Oscar for this role), has been murdered in suspicious circumstances. The film shows how this mild-mannered bureaucrat, a virtual paragon of British reserve, breaks down and then finds the strength to fight back.

Fiennes and Weisz make a great pair of opposite-attracting lovers, Fiennes his usual introverted self, Weisz all passion and intensity. Fiennes plays Justin as a gray, unquestioning cog in the machine, much more interested in tending his garden than examining the policies of Her Majesty's foreign service. He first meets Tessa in London when trying to give a press briefing and she disrupts it by asking difficult questions. Her radical indignation falls on deaf ears, except for Justin, who admires her passion and invites her out for a cuppa.

As is often the case, a quiet, gentle man proves a good partner for a fiery, temperamental woman, and the two soon find themselves deeply in love.

When Justin is dispatched to the British Embassy in Kenya, Tessa follows, choosing to work as a volunteer providing medical services in Nairobi's slums. Here Tessa learns a bit more than she should about some experimental drugs that are getting their clinical trials done on unwitting African patients, with fatal results. Her attempts to learn more about this are, Justin later suspects, what get her killed. As he's told by one inside source, "put $50,000 in the right hands and you can test battery acid as skin lotion."

As he deals with his grief, Justin finds himself picking up the pieces of Tessa's investigation. At first, he just wants to know why his wife was killed; soon, however, he wants payback. Justin blames himself and his attitudes -- "we can't involve ourselves in their lives," he once told Tessa -- for her carrying on her work in secret, and not coming to him for help. Her voice keeps haunting him, from a better time when they lay in bed together and she whispered to him: "I feel safe with you." His failure to protect Tessa drives Justin to abandon his career and personal safety in an attempt to finish her work. A cabal of corporate-government interests are eager to stop him. As one cynic puts it, "it's cheaper to fix the drug trials" than to fix the drug itself.

Director Fernando Meirelles, whose "City Of God" was one of the most striking films of recent years, does a creditable job working as essentially a director-for-hire, but the verve of his earlier film is noticeably absent. Meirelles does make good creative use of flashbacks, cutting from Justin's widowed present to his happier past with Tessa, thus constantly reminding us of the pain that drives this man.

And yet just once I'd like to see Ralph Fiennes in a movie where he isn't all tormented and depressed. Just once I'd like to see a film where the poor, suffering third world masses aren't just a backdrop for a white couple's drama. ("Hotel Rwanda" was a step in the right direction.) Just once I'd like to see a film where a 14-year-old boy doesn't know how to hack into state secrets.

In other words, Meirelles has fashioned a taut thriller, but on Hollywood's terms, not on his own. He's a good director of actors -- generating a plausible and passionate connection between cold-fish Fiennes and hot-hot-hot Weisz is no mean feat, and he also gets a stupendously slimy performance from Bill Nighy ("Love, Actually") as an "old boy" at the Foreign Office who tries to put Justin off his quest. Nevertheless, a needlessly convoluted plot and rather strained ending make this one a step backward for Meirelles. A good study of grief, a rather obvious political thriller.

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