A couple of years ago, Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles was nominated for an Oscar for his first film, the Rio gangster yarn City of God. A sensationalistic tale of street violence among youth gangs, City of God was emotionally blank, but as an exercise in pure film style it was undeniably gripping, pitting a neorealist mise-en-scène against a phalanx of post-digital effects.
Now Meirelles has parlayed that achievement into a second film that comes with a more upscale pedigree: The Constant Gardener is adapted from a John Le Carré bestseller. It stars Ralph Fiennes, who steered the ostensibly similar The English Patient to Oscar glory. It has a global sweep and a bigger budget.
The Constant Gardener, a message-movie thriller about the connections between corporate corruption and Third World misery, is a more conventional film than City of God. Its narrative and thematic broad strokes -- a man overcoming his complacency (or neutrality) to spring into action; political upheaval seen through the prism of one-on-one romance -- are longtime tendencies of English-language cinema, with Gone With the Wind and Casablanca only the most notable examples. But in this case more conventional doesn't mean less successful. The Constant Gardener may be less immediately bracing than City of God. It may have less surface spectacle. But it digs deeper. In Meirelles' debut, style tended to overwhelm story. Here he finds a better balance.
Fiennes is Justin Quayle, a mild, mid-level career British diplomat stationed in Kenya. He meets Tessa (Rachel Weisz), a younger, fiery would-be human-rights activist, while giving a speech back home in London. Later married, Tessa joins Justin in Africa. There, while he's performing his diplomatic duties, she takes a more hands-on approach to helping a populace wracked by poverty and AIDS.
The film opens with Justin seeing Tessa off at the airport. She disappears into the background blur as he stands rapt. It's a lovely scene and the last time he'll see her alive. From there, Meirelles tells the story by cutting between two narrative lines. One is a flashback that follows Justin and Tessa's meeting through their relationship and her murder. The other follows Justin's investigation into that murder, in which a conspiracy is discovered that implicates international pharmaceutical giants and his own government.
Even though Meirelles' visuals are subservient to the story, he remains an active stylist. Justin and Tessa's first sexual encounter is dreamy -- filmed in tight close-ups against a white background that banishes the world outside. When the film lands in Kenya for the first time, Meirelles uses a hand-held camera to follow along the top of a child's head as he weaves through a colorful, noisy shantytown crowd. In City of God, these flourishes would have been ends in themselves. Here they merely enhance the narrative or emotional information Meirelles is trying to impart.
It's less showy, but with The Constant Gardener, Meirelles has found a way to unify form and content, which is what the best narrative filmmaking is all about.
The Constant Gardener
Opened Wednesday, August 31st