January 22, 2006

DVD Review: The Constant Gardener

Golden Globe winner The Constant Gardener plays out in a fractured way that forces you to actively put it all together. A little bit here, a little there, all giving hints about the bigger picture. That bigger picture works on many levels, thriller, drama, romance, each one winding it's way towards a satisfying conclusion. The experience of seeing this on the big screen translates very well to the small screen.

The story is a maze of intrigue involving an activist, Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz), who is investigating the experimentation of drugs on the poor of Africa. Early in the film, without giving too much away, she is killed, along with her driver and partner, Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde). Tessa's husband, Justin (Ralph Fiennes), is then thrust into a world of trouble, as he goes on a quest to answer the questions surrounding her death. Questions that nobody can, or wants to, answer.

The movie plays out on a larger scale as a political thriller, but beneath that, and perhaps more satisfying, is a love story. Justin is on a journey to discover the truth behind his wife's death. This includes continuing her work of exposing the big drug companies, but this also leads him on a trail of discovery, discovery of how deep his love for his wife runs. This plays out as he peels away the layers between his perceived reality and actual reality. Justin puts himself in the middle of illegal drug testing, murder, and laws with a lot of grey area.

Justin is the gardener of the title, allowing himself to be distracted by unimportant issues by working on his garden, oblivious to what Tessa was really doing. In essence he was protecting himself from getting too involved with what he can't help, while she dove headlong into what she new she could help at the moment. The ending sort of sneaks up on you and just strikes with great emotional resonance, that will stick with you..

The movie has some great characters that feel real as opposed to the cardboard cutouts that populate so many of today's movies. Ralph Fiennes leads the cast with a moving portrayal of a man in the throes of discovery, of his wife and himself. The growth that he goes through from being the gardener to the lengths that he goes to for answers flow so naturally as to be completely believable. Rachel Weisz, who recently won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, as Tessa is powerful, giving a portrayal of a woman determined to do the right thing and help those that she knows she can, while at the same time trying to protect her loved ones. The supporting cast is also filled fine performances from the likes of Herbert Kounde, Danny Huston, Pete Postlethwaite, and Bill Nighy. Each one feeling like a real person within the confines and logic of the film.

The film was directed by Fernando Meirelles with a kinetic style, relying on a lot of hand held camera work giving it a strong sense of immediacy. It works well for the material, although I would have preferred a bit more traditional style for some of the quieter moments. The writing was handled by Jeffrey Caine, adapting the novel by John Le Carre. It is learned in the extra materials that the story that ends up onscreen varies wildly from the content of the book, yet is the most faithful adaptation of his work.

Video. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and looks quite good. The movie thrives in drained colors giving it a documentary type look. The film was not shot in controlled conditions, rather much was shot on location in Kenya with minimal crew. This down and dirty approach works well, and this transfer is faithful to it.

Audio. We are given a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, actually 2, one English and one French. It sounds good, it goes hand in hand with the video style. Much of it sounds as if it were recorded live on the set. There is not a lot of sub action, no real special effects to speak of, although some of the crowds out the surrounds to good use. Nice track, nothing to complain about.

Extras. This release is part of Focus Features Spotlight Collection, and brings a few extras with it.
-Embracing Africa: Shooting in Kenya. This is an 11 minute featurette that deals with how they came to shoot in Kenya, how they had originally just gone there to scout the locations from the book. It is an interesting look into the relationship that was developed during the shoot.
-John Le Carre: From Page to the Screen. Running about 10 minutes, this features interviews with both Le Carre and Meirelles. Le Carre speaks on his history with adaptations of his material, and how well this one worked out, even with divergences from the source.
-Anatomy of a Global Thriller: Behind the Scenes of The Constant Gardener. This 11 minute featurette takes a look at the variety of locations and heat issues that they dealt with. This was interesting, but I wish it was a bit longer.
-Deleted Scenes. We get a little over 20 minutes worth of excised material. Nothing here would have made a great deal of impact on the film, but deleted material is always nice to have.
-Extended Scene: Haruma - Play in Kibera. This is as it says it is, and extended version of the play that is glimpsed in the village early in the film.

Bottomline. This is a wonderful film which works best as a romance, but also is highly effective political thriller, giving insight into the business of the big drug companies. It is well acted, directed, and written. Overall, this is one of the best films of 2005, and a pretty nice DVD.

Highly Recommended.


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