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John Le Carré is the acclaimed author who penned the stories behind no end of spy and conspiracy productions. From the superior Alec Guinness series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to the solid Richard Burton espionage movie The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, his work has made for some seriously meaty products that are consistently mentally stimulating. Some people find the productions based on his work protracted and slow, like the Sean Connery / Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle The Russia House, but he is a well respected author whose material just needs to be treated with the respect that it deserves. The last effort made was with the Pierce Brosnan movie, The Tailor of Panama, which offered an excellent but extremely jaundiced look at the flipside to James Bond, but now we have The Constant Gardener, which was a bestseller for Le Carré, but does it make for a decent movie?

The Constant Gardener

Movie


Justin Quayle is a starkly conservative diplomat, bordering on boring in his mentality and lifestyle. Whilst tending to his garden in Kenya one day, he is informed that his wife has been killed. Worse still, he is also confronted by reports of her infidelity, tearing him apart during what should have been a period of remorse. He always knew that his wife, Tessa, was a wild free spirit, impassioned by a desperate need to find the truth behind all of the money-driven conspiracies that governments around the world perpetuate, whether in Iraq or in Africa, but he never expected things to go this far. Almost by chance, he begins to scratch below the surface of her death and soon finds himself getting more and more deeply involved in a conspiracy that runs all the way up to the top of the diplomatic ladder and holds secrets that could threaten governments.

The Constant Gardener is an almost by-the-numbers conspiracy thriller that becomes unflinchingly intriguing purely in the way in which the plot is evolved. Shot with heavy use of flashback to develop the characters, we are also slowly fed the truth behind the political conspiracy, and it is much easier to digest since the central character, Justin, is constantly having to come to terms with it himself. Was his wife really having an affair? Was it just a marriage of convenience? Was she just a wild and paranoid conspiracy theorist whose clandestine affair ended in tragedy? The harder Justin’s voyage of discovery becomes, the more determined he is to get to the truth.

The Constant Gardener
The director, Fernando Meirelles, is the man behind the superb City of God, and he has done a brilliant, professional, job here (although you can still see his trademark flourishes during most of the Kenyan sequences, with plenty of handheld use and point-of-view shots). He has made a well-constructed thriller with no frills, but plenty of clever plot and character development. This is a clear case of substance over style, but Meirelles definitely gives a distinctive look to his productions, capturing the glass-biased big cities with the same attention to detail as the vast Kenyan landscapes. Of course, his movie really comes together thanks to the characters and the people he has chosen to play the various roles.

Heading up the cast we have Ralph Fiennes as Justin Quayle. A seriously underrated actor (and vastly less irritating than his lame brother) he appears to have been lumped with too many roles that he does not deserve at the moment. Whilst I don’t particularly rate The English Patient with as much acclaim as it has critically attained, he was still very good in it, providing a performance worthy of noting. I think his true mettle, oddly enough, was really showcased in the excellent thriller Strange Days, where he starred opposite the classy Angela Bassett, who was also on top form.

Here Fiennes is well-chosen as the quietly determined and unflappable widower, a distinctly unexceptional businessman who simply will not let his wife’s murder go unanswered. Backing him up is the adorable Rachel Weisz as his radical wife, Tessa, whose fidelity is thrown into question right from the outset. She is an actress who has simply gone from strength to strength over the last few years, not least with movies like this and her decent turn in the gritty comic-book adaptation, Constantine. Here we mostly get to know her in flashback and, despite the twists and turns in her character development, she is never less than convincing in the role.

The Constant Gardener
It is at this stage that I should point out that it is an almost all-British cast, with solid supporting performances from the likes of Bill Nighy ( Underworld, Love Actually) and Pete Postlethwaite ( In the Name of the Father, The Lost World: Jurassic Park ). In fact, one of the few main characters that is not played by a Brit is Tessa’s close friend (and purported lover), Albert, played by Frenchman Hubert Kounde. I haven’t seen him since his superb turn in the excellent drama La Haine but I hope this small supporting role gives him more of a chance in mainstream cinema.

The Constant Gardener is a classic conspiracy thriller, cleverly played out with complex twists and turns and political machinations all around. With a solid British cast and some beautiful cinematography, City of God’s director has worked wonders with John Le Carré’s bestselling novel. If you’re minded to handle a mentally stimulating masterpiece which does not need to resort to big bangs to keep you gripped throughout, then this is likely to be just your cup of tea.

Video


The Constant Gardener is presented in a fresh 1.85:1 aspect ratio anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer. Shot with plenty of hand-held use and fast-editing, with cuts back and forth, the picture detail varies a little but is generally superb. Softness is only intentional (where certain people drop out of focus), edge enhancement is kept to a minimum and there is very little grain (again depending on the filming technique). The colour scheme is quite broad, reflecting the luscious warmth of Africa, both indoor and outside in the blazing sunshine, as well as showing the shiny metallic side of London, complete with typical cloud-strewn skies. The palette is well-represented, tones deep and blacks solid, for a transfer that has absolutely no signs of any print damage.

The Constant Gardener

Audio


The main audio track is a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 effort. The dialogue, whether shouting, singing or whispering, is always clear and coherent. Sound effects range from the subtle ambient noises (like the background wildlife and footsteps clipping across the polished floors) to crowds cheering, plane engines and gunshots. The score offers the most potency, however, often giving us some lively bass—mainly because of the frequent use of Africa drums—but its subtle observation of the plot development, changing in tone to match the subject-matter, is brilliant. It is probably the highlight of this audio track.

Extras


First up we get a documentary, ‘Embracing Africa’, which looks at filming this production in Kenya. Nearly ten minutes in length, we see the film crews riding around in Kenya, with crowds of onlookers eager to participate in the production. Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz talk about working there, along with some of the crew members, and they discuss the Kenyan landscape, the infrastructure and the authenticity that comes with actually filming there. The director compares filming there to the other places that he has set his movies (like Brazil for City of God) and we get no end of footage of everyday life in Kenya.

The Constant Gardener
John Le Carré ‘From Page to Screen’ runs at eight minutes and has the author himself discussing his work and how this particular novel was made into a movie. He talks about how they initially did not like the idea of setting a movie in Africa, how he originally wanted to address the issues over oil but then changed his mind to attack the pharmaceutical industry and his involvement in the production. We also get comments from the director and other crew members, discussing the plot and its very topical significance.

There are a few deleted scenes and one extended scene. Totalling about twenty minutes of extra footage, we get more character development for the smaller roles, more of Justin’s quest for the truth and the full-length version of the Kenya play. The one extra sequence with Justin is quite dramatic, but largely the material is excess baggage.

‘Anatomy of a Global Thriller’ is an eleven minute behind the scenes featurette that has much more final film footage than the other extras on this disc. It also has that irritating voice-over man working overtime and the cast and crew offering silly sound bites that do not do justice to the movie (merely trying to sell it to you), but thankfully there is still plenty of behind the scenes footage and a few interesting titbits about the production that should keep fans interested.

The Constant Gardener

Overall


The Constant Gardener is an intriguing political thriller with a solid cast, some superb performances (including an Oscar-winning one from Rachel Weisz) and a beautifully constructed story, based on John Le Carré brilliant work. The video detail is variable, dependant on scene, but the transfer is largely excellent and with a solid audio track and some decent extras, this is a title that is definitely worth adding to your collection. Action movies take the easy option to keep a viewer entertained, but it takes a great deal more for a slow-paced conspiracy thriller to hook your attention for over two hours. The Constant Gardener really hits the mark.


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