I’m not usually a big fan of John le Carré adaptations, generally finding it quicker to actually read the book than to sit through the film version. I once caught a TV edit of The Russia House on A&E while in my junior year of high school, and didn’t finish watching it until halfway through commencement. It ended up working out for the best, because I managed to skip a year and a half of trying not to get arrested for selling oregano laced with plastic shavings to freshmen. Plus, I had Michelle Pfieffer’s horrific Russian accent running through my head like a scratched CD of Steve Martin’s “Wild and Crazy” guys routine, drowning out my own valedictory address, which consisted of comparing high school to The Evil Dead and flashing satanic hand gestures to the school chaplain like gang signs. But, I was willing to give The Constant Gardener a shot, mainly because of director Fernando Meirelles, an exciting new talent from Brazil. The fact that there’s any talent in Brazil not devoted to kidnapping schemes and making curare poison out of small frogs, let alone the kind it takes to make an epic like Meirelles’ breakout film, City of God, is astounding, and I’m glad it helped open people’s eyes to films that aren’t remakes of campy 1970s TV shows. I’m not actually all that crazy about City of God, as it pretty much consists of Death Wish, Boyz In The Hood, and The Public Enemy all sewed together like a Frankenstein’s monster too stupid to do anything but lumber around for three hours and smash stuff. It wowed pretty much the same sort of people who think the world of character development begins and ends with Bruce Willis walking on glass shards in Die Hard, and acts as sort of a gateway drug to lead the American male 18-35 demographic away from Fastlane reruns and into the world of foreign films pretending to be Jerry Bruckheimer productions. However, that film is certainly not boring, so I hoped Meirelles might be able to inject some excitement into material that probably had an initial interest level hovering somewhere between televised Canadian parliamentary proceedings and rough notes for a thesis project on religious atavism in Norway.
I was not mistaken. Meirelles keeps things exciting, or rather more exciting than I’d imagine a movie about Ralph Fiennes and pharmaceutical companies could be, but unfortunately, the same tricks that work in an action film like City of God are perhaps not terribly well suited to a movie about stuffy British diplomats reading politely worded letters about unethical business practices. It’s kind of like if McG were to make a film about Mendel’s 19th century study of genetics; there’s only so many snap zooms and quick cuts of the selective cultivation of pea plants I can take before I start checking my watch and trying to flick popcorn kernels at the guy in the RIP Tupac T-shirt who snaps his fingers and yells “boo-ya, bitch” every time there’s a loud noise. Meirelles uses the same sort of third world aesthetic we’re used to seeing from Latin America, where they can afford neither tripods nor color film, so everything looks like home video footage of a car chase that’s been hand colored with tempra paint. Punchy colors and visible grain aside, the film looks very nice, but I’m not sure if the documentary urgency of the style fits the piece as well as it could, like it’s the filmic version of Merielles trying to impress a foxy clerk at the local pharmacy by picking up the box of Magnum condoms when he could have done with the regular size.
Now with ribbed stylistic flourishes!
Aside from that minor stylistic over-reach, the film is fairly strong on most counts. The story is as interesting as a movie about English aristocrats could possibly be, with acts breaks sternly punctuated by arched eyebrows and sputtered protestations of impropriety, and there are some strong performances, particularly by the supporting cast. Ralph Fiennes plays a diplomat married to Rachel Wiesz, who moves to Africa in order to putter around and talk about how the climate is doing wonders for his rheumatism, which I understand is the only reason the British travel to the colonies. Weisz is an activist, which means she’s easy and doesn’t shave her legs, and gets very upset if you notice. She also becomes immediately attached to the African children surrounding her in that particular stage of starvation and illness that makes their eyes big and their stomachs small enough that they still look small and pitiful, but not yet weird enough that they could pass for shark-toothed baby Grays from The X-Files. And of course, it's now officially become clear that in the world of Hollywood film, Africa needs affluent white people to save it from itself, but as I've already slurred at least two separate races in the course of this review, perhaps I don't have the grounds to get indignant. Weisz gets involved in a conspiracy and soon ends up dead, leaving Fiennes to pick up the pieces and grow a backbone. Which he does, through several phone calls and a whole lot of writing notes on personalized stationary, with those expensive pens that you dip in inkwells which only seem to be used by Victorian diarists and the opening credits of mystery shows on Prime. But it’s all shot like The Blair Witch Project through a stained glass filter, so it should keep the masses happy. I know I certainly was.