December 6, 2005 -- “The Constant Gardener,” a film based on the popular John le Carré novel, is one of the best films of the year. It takes the guise of a political thriller about a murderous international conspiracy, but it is really a love story in which almost none of the characters are who they seem to be.
Masterfully directed by Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”), the film swoops in and out of various countries at a frenetic pace. It covers a lot of political ground as it unravels a huge conspiracy about killing on a massive scale, but it keeps a fierce grip on its central character, Justin Quayle (played by Ralph Fiennes of “Maid in Manhattan”). The story opens with the murder of Quayle's wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz of “Constantine”). Suddenly, there is a flashback of several years to the day that Justin met Tessa. This is a confusing flashback to anyone not knowing before the movie, as I did, that Tessa was played by Rachel Weisz, or who didn't take notice of Tessa's face in a small photo earlier in the movie. It becomes clear, eventually, however.
The mystery behind Tessa's death begins to be revealed, a layer at a time, as Justin begins to investigate. He pieces together bits of evidence from Tessa's letters, messages and e-mails. When Justin first sees the body of his dead wife, he show's little emotional reaction, while his friend, Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston of “21 Grams”) has a violent reaction. Through Justin's investigation we begin to see just how much he loves his wife, layer by layer. We discover this profound love not by his facial expressions, but by his actions. We also begin to learn that some people he and his wife knew were not who they appeared to be. Some of their friends were not friends at all. He also discovers that his wife had kept a lot of secrets from him. He finally discovers her reasons for keeping him out of the loop. His wife was careful about who she trusted, just not careful enough.
Fiennes turns in a masterful, subtle performance as Justin. Weisz gives an excellent performance as well (she gets a lot more screen time than you would expect for a dead character). Also giving strong performances are Danny Huston and Bill Nighy of “Love Actually,” who play government officials. Also good in a supporting role is Pete Postlethwaite of “The Shipping News,” who plays Dr. Lorbeer, yet another character who is not what he appears to be at first. The film has a lot to say about how the most powerful nations of the world view Africans as expendable, and it has a lot to say about the AIDS crisis in Africa. It also has a lot to say about how soulless big corporations are. For all its political trappings, this film is really a love story, and that's where its main power lies. This film rates an A.
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