Wednesday 26th January 2022

The Constant Gardener (15)
Directed by: Fernando Meirelles
Reviewed by: Dave Witt

City of God (2002), Fernando Meirelles' international debut, was an astonishing film. A vivid and brutal insight into the desperation of young life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, it was all the more arresting for the shocking authenticity of its finale, transposing a mesmerising tale into unforgettable docudrama. As a by-line, it might also have been called "Why Living in Rio's Slums Really Sucks".

Despite the film's title, there are some stretches of the film where no gardening actually takes place
Despite the film's title, there are some stretches of the film where no gardening actually takes place

These themes carry perfectly over to Meirelles' first English language film, the Constant Gardener. Adapted from John le Carré's post-spy era novel, the film's focus is Africa: specifically a stark, dusty Kenya, its shanty towns riven with poverty, deprivation and disease, no less tragic than the favelas of Rio. In the midst of it all are newly-weds Justin (Ralph Fiennes), a middling British diplomat of bumbling good humour (and the persistent horticulturalist of the title), and Tessa (Rachel Weisz), a passionate young activist burning to fight Africa's myriad injustices.

The crux of the film is Tessa's brutal murder, and its subsequent aftermath; with her death revealed at the start of the film, the story of Justin and Tessa's relationship is told in fragmented flashback form, flashes of previously unfinished scenes and themes inter-cutting Justin's own subsequent passage. Initially, he swallows the official line on her death: that she was having an affair with her colleague, and he killed her and fled. But steadily and purposefully the truth is revealed, as the action travels both forwards and backwards in time: through Justin's own memories, and his increasingly relentless investigation into the circumstances of not just his wife's death, but also her life.

As the title would suggest, Fiennes is the heart of the film, and is perfectly cast as a seemingly-stereotypical British civil servant abroad – all stiff upper lip and hand-wringing upset at the plight of the natives. Through the passage of the film, however, he reveals an unexpected tenderness, tenacity and character, which power the film towards its conclusion. To this end, Fiennes is ably assisted by Weisz, giving a fiery and inspiring performance in her own personal quest to reveal the conspiracies around her. The rest of the cast is no less impressive: luminaries such as Bill Nighy, Danny Huston and Pete Postlethwaite pack out the film with moments of individual mastery.

If there's a problem with the Constant Gardener, it's that Fiennes perhaps plays his role too well – in his character's apparent emotional detachment from so much that surrounds him, the audience is left feeling somewhat disconnected from the one man who should be at the centre of our sympathies. Other minor gripes: Meirelles' direction is at times flashy and exhilarating, at others choppy and almost nauseating; the plot's density and the regular jumping of location and timeline leave plenty of room for bewilderment.

The film is unremittingly angry, but seemingly in the manner of a Panorama exposé on the tragic injustice of Africa's inhabitants. In this respect, it inherits the same disquieting ring of realism of City of God, albeit in low-simmering fashion. Like the director's previous film, the concluding mood is one of shock and sadness; thought-provoking, unsettling, and distressingly authentic, the by-line for this one might well have read "Why Living in Kenya's Slums Really Sucks".

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Length: 129 minutes
Certificate: 15
Official Site:
IMDB Link:
Release Date: 11th November 2005

Top Five Rating: 70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0% (70.0%)
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