City of God cemented Brazilian director Meirelles as one to watch. Arguably one of the best films of 2003, his tour de force of crime, loyalty and puberty in the violent Rio de Janeiro slums could have been the culmination of a decades-long career in Hollywood.
He effortlessly wove subplots and characters together, drew incredible performances not just from unknowns but real slum dwellers who weren’t even actors and aroused a huge range of emotions in audiences. It was as visceral as it was contemplative and was (justifiably) nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2003 Oscars.
You wouldn’t think adapting one of the best-loved thriller writers in the world would be an easy task for Meirelles, but City of God wasn’t original material either, and he likewise brings his extraordinary talents to bear on Le Carre’s story about the corruption of the pharmaceutical industry.
Like City of God, The Constant Gardener has something important to say and wants to tell you a story about people as well. Few movies do both so comfortably, and it’s emerged as Meirelles’ forte.
British diplomat Justin Quayle (Fiennes) lives with his activist wife Tessa (a luminous Weisz) in Africa. We learn early on — as you’ll already know if you’ve seen the trailer — that Tessa and a colleague are intercepted on a remote road in the far north and murdered.
Unbelievably aggrieved but keeping a very British stiff upper lip you just know is going to crack any minute, Justin goes through the numbing motions of sorting out her things when he discovers something about the project she was working on. European pharmaceutical companies are using impoverished Africans as their research guinea pigs, getting unsafe drugs passed too early and bribing regional governments to carry out the tests without the inconvenient issue of informed consent.
Despite everybody having told him to pull his wife ‘into line’ over the previous months and feeling their beautiful marriage start to fray because of her secrecy, Quayle embarks on a quest to find the truth, and the deeper he goes, the higher up and the nastier it gets.
The trail leads him home to the UK, across Europe and back to Africa to the very spot Tessa was killed, and he has to call in every favour he can to work under the radar.
The Constant Gardener has a strong thriller aspect that never once descends into cliche. The realism is summed up in a single line as Quayle makes contact with a local secret service envoy; (a balding 60-something dying from smoking-related cancer and cynicism); ‘You’re the closest thing this country has to James Bond’.
The message is both timely and razor-sharp, and in a big way, this is fiction for people who loved documentaries like The Corporation and Enron; The Smartest Guys in the Room.
But unlike a documentarian, Meirelles is as comfortable and skilled among the tender mercies of videoing your smiling, pregnant wife in the bath as he is the lofty heights of international business corruption. There isn’t a single moment of The Constant Gardener that feels out of place or incorrect or doesn’t hold you riveted. A roughshod array of film stock and camerawork and the fractured narrative add even more, making full use of the visuals to tell the story along with a fantastic script.
After her arrival on the scene as second fiddle in an array of dumb action movies (Chain Reaction, The Mummy), Weisz has carved an impressive career out of some very good roles, and the talk about an Oscar nod is justified.
But Fiennes owns the show. A classical actor in the original sense of the word rather than a star, he can portray anything from the point of view of any character with conviction. Whether a psychopathic killer (Red Dragon, Schindler’s List), squeaky clean leading man (Maid in Manhattan) wizard’s nemesis (the upcoming Harry Potter) or the reserved bureaucrat Justin Quayle, you believe in him fully.
And keep a close eye on Sandy, a friend of the Qualye’s who harbours a few dark secrets. You might just pick him as psycho older brother Danny from recent Aussie Western The Proposition.
The roles and dialogue are impeccable and together with source material this powerful, a script this good and a directing talent that continues to show Hollywood how it’s done, The Constant Gardener is very much this year’s City of God.