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The Constant Gardener

John le Carré's status as a genre writer — having crafted some of the Cold War-era's finest espionage thrillers — does him very little credit. In fact, while his million-selling paperbacks have rubbed covers with the likes of Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth, and Alistair MacLean, le Carré has always been a cut above the rest, the only cat-and-mouse master who also could be described as (ahem) literary. To some degree, this is because he rarely takes anything at face-value, especially concepts such as heroism or patriotism. Lacking Ludlum's theatrical stylistics and Forsyth's conservative bent, le Carré paints a world in various grays, perhaps best seen (on film at least) in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1964), wherein equally ruthless British and East German spies attempt to cross and triple-cross each other, no matter what the human cost. It's this very vagueness of things that makes le Carré so appealing — the odd sensation that the world under our feet is about to shift, imperceptibly but critically so. It's also what makes The Constant Gardener (2005) so engrossing, even though the author's moral ambiguity this time is not extended to diplomats nor drug companies. Ralph Fiennes stars as Justin Quayle, a member of the British High Commission in Kenya. We meet him at the same moment we learn the hinge on which the plot will turn: Justin's wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) has been brutally murdered whilst on a trip to the country's northern region. In flashback, we then find that Justin and Tessa's marriage was an unlikely one, having first met during a speaking engagement, when she challenged the British government's (and tacitly, his) support for the Iraqi war. Marrying and relocating to Kenya, Justin pursues his career and tends to his garden, while Tessa is firmly committed to her "work," even though Justin isn't always sure what such entails. With her colleague Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), Tessa begins investigating the ThreeBees research group, which is secretly testing the prototype tuberculosis medicine Dypraxa on unsuspecting Kenyans. She causes enough trouble to earn the British Head of Station Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston) a rebuke, but he unwittingly allows her to steal a letter incriminating higher-ups in the diplomatic corps. After Tessa's death, Justin finds himself compelled to re-trace her steps — although when he too is targeted for assassination, he realizes his only hope for survival is to recover the letter that also put Tessa in grave danger.

*          *          *

British director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) was originally slated to direct The Constant Gardner, but his withdrawal (opting instead for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) might be considered one of the film's many happy accidents — Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles seems a far better fit for the material, particularly for a film that takes place primarily in third-world countries and offers a stark, bleak look at endemic poverty. Another happy accident was the late decision to shoot on location in Kenya, rather than simply scout the country for detail and then set up in South Africa, where most of the continent's film industry is based. The location work is both unique and stunning — rarely does a feature film get this far into a foreign culture, particularly in Africa. Even better, Meirelles captures a universality of experience, where adults struggle with day-to-day matters but children run and play in the streets, blissfully unaware of their own circumstances. As with his powerful debut City of God (2002), Meirelles creates inertia from swift interplay between scenes, and the performances therein are impeccable, particularly from Ralph Fiennes, a man who barely grieves upon hearing of his wife's death, but, as events unfold, eventually mourns her with unfathomable sorrow. As with a good le Carré story, the conspiracy is only hinted at, mostly confined to Justin Quayle's perspective. Nonetheless, where le Carré's Cold War classics often portrayed the unethical nature of espionage on all sides, both the British High Commission and pharmaceutical companies are casually scapegoated here — elements which doubtless make for entertaining socio-political drama, but seem far too broad and simplistic for a writer of le Carré's stature. Universal/Focus Film's DVD release of The Constant Gardener offers a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include three featurettes, "Anatomy of a Global Thriller: Behind the Scenes of The Constant Gardener" (11 min.), "John le Carré: From the Page to the Screen" (8 min.), and "Embracing Africa: Filming in Kenya" (9 min.) Also on board is a deleted scenes reel (10 min.) and one extended scene. Keep-case.

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