Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston, Daniele Harford, Hubert Kound�, Richard McCabe, Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite, Anneke Kim Sarnau, Jason Thornton, Rupert Simonian"/>
Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston, Daniele Harford, Hubert Kound�, Richard McCabe, Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite, Anneke Kim Sarnau, Jason Thornton, Rupert Simonian
Written by: Jeffrey Caine, based on a novel by John Le Carré
Directed by: Fernando Meirelles
MPAA Rating: R for language, some violent images and sexual content/nudity
Running Time: 129
Date: 08/31/2005

The Constant Gardener (2005)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Starkest Africa

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles earned an oversized amount of praise for his City of God, a film that had a remarkable sense of place -- set in the ghettos of Brazil -- but suffered because of its obvious stylistic borrowings from Tarantino, Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson. Improbably, Meirelles earned an Oscar nomination for Best Director.

Now Meirelles has taken several steps to insure another nomination with The Constant Gardener. He has made an English language film, which will attract even more viewers, and he has adapted a source novel (by John Le Carré) with a strong social message: AIDS in Africa and the greedy drug companies who refuse to help. And this time, instead of borrowing from good action directors, he has copied the current trend of documentary-style hand-held camerawork.

There are two major problems with this approach. Meirelles does not have the first idea how to cinematically adapt a complex novel, and so he ends up simply filming long conversations. In an effort to make these conversations seem visual, he stages them in interesting places, such as the top of a cliff or in a shade-draped garden, but they are still nothing more than long conversations. Additionally, the hand-held cinematography is so jumpy and jerky that it continually draws attention to itself and throws the entire film off-balance.

Fortunately, The Constant Gardener has going for it some decent performances by Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz and Danny Huston. Weisz plays Tessa, a liberal activist who marries British diplomat Justin Quayle (Fiennes). The couple travels to Africa, where she becomes involved in covert operations to bring down an evil drug company. Unfortunately, Quayle has no idea what's going on; he believes his wife might be having an affair. Huston plays a shady bureaucrat who aids Tessa for his own selfish reasons. Cult actor Bill Nighy (Love Actually, Shaun of the Dead) turns up in a small, but refreshingly snarky role as one of Quayle's colleagues.

Fiennes alone drums up enough support to keep viewers from leaving the theater, but Meirelles can't find a decent pace for the overall film. He limply tries to punch up certain scenes with action or intrigue, but during other sequences he can't keep his shaky camera from wandering, looking at birds in the sky or nearby statues. It's as if the camera is as bored as we are. In certain throwaway scenes Meirelles lets the camera play over the faces of poor African kids in a lazy attempt to garner our outrage and sympathy.

As usual with this kind of socially conscious film, many have already fallen all over themselves to praise it, and it will no doubt come in strongly in the year-end Oscar race (it's this year's A Beautiful Mind). But one look beyond the message will reveal a very bad attempt at art and a complete failure of cinema.

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