- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Ralph Fiennes will be splitting personalities in the latter half of the film year. He was chosen to impersonate a prince of despots, Valdemort, in the movie version of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” which opens around Thanksgiving.

Starting today, he can be scrutinized as the title character of “The Constant Gardener,” an addled and seemingly interminable adaptation of the John le Carre polemical thriller, which casts him as a British diplomat given to gentlemanly suffering and stoicism. One can anticipate a potentially definitive contrast between the sinister Ralph Fiennes and the pitiable Ralph Fiennes.

The protagonist of “Gardener” resides in Nairobi, Kenya, where he is said to oversee “aid effectiveness” for the high commissioner. Given the timorous name of Justin Quayle, he belatedly generates a certain forlorn ferocity while investigating the violent death of his wayward mate, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), a left-wing political activist roughly a generation younger. She begins the story as a victim of foul play and demands recurrent, anything-but-streamlined expeditions into flashback hell to account for shadowy motives and activities.

At first backward glance, Tessa (it may be diverting to think of her as a cross between Princess Di and Teresa Heinz Kerry) appears to sweep Quayle off his passive feet as part of a veiled professional-cum-ideological agenda. It’s difficult to believe they have much in common apart from government contacts in Justin’s old-boy network that Tessa might find useful for crusading or her own muckraking purposes.

At the time of her death — a brutal assault near a remote lake — it appears that she might have been deceiving her spouse with an ill-fated companion, a black medical staffer involved in an ambitious program of immunizations in the countryside.

Later, it’s even acknowledged that Tessa did barter sex for classified information while vamping one of Quayle’s dishonorable colleagues. A title like “The Eternal Cuckold” wouldn’t be out of line.

Having assembled a suspicious case in retrospect, the author reveals his own misleading agenda. The baggage train of flashbacks is meant to vindicate Tessa as a true heart and saintly seducer, so intent on exposing the corruption of a greedy pharmaceutical conglomerate preying on the African peasantry that all deceits are forgivable. It’s not unlike the “reasons of state” argument governments traditionally use to justify harmful decisions. In her case, it’s closer to “reasons of radical solidarity.”

Having characterized himself at one point as the type who “takes refuge in nasturtium seeds,” Quayle never quite duplicates the implacable authority of traditional movie heroes who hit the vengeance trail, which leads to Germany, England and Sudan in this case.

The Charles Bronson approach would have been more straightforward. A case could be made that both avengers are spent shells as human beings after tracking down their tormenters. Mr. Fiennes is better equipped to portray this process as a demoralizing one.

It’s an aesthetic pity no one was found to distill a convoluted plot with merciful finesse. The scenario becomes a slog that seems to reject any plausible exit routes. This maladroit method has become pretty commonplace. I wish I had a dollar for every recent movie that prompted the lament, “Will this rattletrap never end?”

Quayle’s quest for justice grows burdensome long before the movie runs out of tedious feints and backtracks. The tail-chasing defects seem to aggravate the inexperience in Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, whose flair begins and ends with the evocation of exotic, feverish locations. Is it clever to formulate a yarn about tainted medicine that specializes in dismal side effects?


TITLE: “The Constant Gardener”

RATING: R (Occasional graphic violence with gruesome illustrative details; elements of sexual candor and racial animosity)

CREDITS: Directed by Fernando Meirelles. Screenplay by Jeffrey Caine, based on the novel by John le Carre. Cinematography by Cesar Charlone. Production design by Mark Tildesley. Costume design by Odile Dicks-Mireaux. Music by Alberto Iglesi.

RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes

WEB SITE: www.theconstant gardener.com


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