The Constant Gardener (R)
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Kimball's Twin Peak
In the opening scene of The Constant Gardener, British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) sees off his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) as she leaves on a trip from which we know she'll never return. At a Kenyan airstrip, activist Tessa is traveling with a Red Cross physician to a meeting with an unknown purpose; within a few days, both of them will be found murdered.
As Tessa heads to the plane, director Fernando Meirelles keeps the focus on Justin in the foreground, while Tessa's shape dissolves into a blur amid a blast of overexposed glare. That single shot of a man watching his beloved disappear from his life is, quite literally, dazzling.
So it's perhaps even more disappointing, after such a brilliant opening, to watch the film itself dissolve into a similar blur.
It didn't have to be like that. Meirelles -- the precociously talented, Oscar-nominated director of City of God -- actually makes a wise choice early on by focusing not on novelist John le Carr's trademark international intrigue, but on the relationship between Justin and Tessa. He flashes back to their first meeting in London and their impulsive decision to get married before Justin leaves for an assignment in Africa.
There's a wonderful improvisational rhythm to the interplay between Fiennes and Weisz, a natural chemistry shaped by sharp editing. For a while, this "thriller" actually is a terrific, tragic love story.
But this tale has other fish of another genre to fry. As Justin begins to probe into the events surrounding Tessa's death, he begins to unravel suspicious dealings involving some of his government colleagues -- including his boss Sir Bernard (Bill Nighy) and his best friend Sandy (Danny Huston) -- and pharmaceutical companies doing business in Kenya. He's shipped back to England, and his life is threatened. It's quite the setup for an emotion-packed detective story.
Only the mystery, such as it is, doesn't take particularly long to solve. By approximately the end of the first hour, it's fairly clear who is in bed with whom politically, as well as what kind of shady activities the pharmaceutical company is engaged in.
The problem is that everything begins to feel redundant during the film's final hour. Everything of consequence there is to know about the players in the plot, we know; everything of consequence there is to know about Justin and Tessa, we know.
While Fiennes' performance and Meirelles' stylish direction provide some distraction, eventually the repetition of the film's political message simply becomes wearying. It just as easily could be titled The Constant Reminders That We Exploit the Third World.
-- Scott Renshaw