Like THE INSIDER, THE CONSTANT GARDENER is a dramatic thriller that will earn a great deal of respect, but will most likely be cast aside by mainstream audiences. Those expecting chases and shootouts will find more action from THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN. The film involves a murder, a cover-up and a global conspiracy. These are its least interesting elements. GARDNER WORKS best as a romance between two characters deeply in love whose different view of the world brings them closer together. It is also director Fernando Meirelles’ follow up to CITY OF GOD.

There’s an inevitable disappointment to Meirelles’ work here. CITY OF GOD is one of the greatest films ever made and best directed film so far this decade. That is his masterwork. It’s asking too much to believe he could top himself, and he doesn’t. There are numerous powerful sequences, and this is clearly the work of a superior filmmaker. But the thriller elements that slow down the last quarter of the picture feel uninspired. I’m kind of tired of these scenes where our main character must collect information from people who either respond with A) “I shouldn’t be saying this, but…” B) “I can’t help you but here’s the name and address of someone who can.” C) “Don’t go poking your nose or else…” or D) “If I tell you, they’ll kill me.”

Meirelles hasn’t figured a way to reinvigorate those scenes. It might have helped simplify things to have one bad guy instead of an indistinguishable group of guilty people. Meirelles is better when events affect people rather then just being clues to be collected. The climax of CITY OF GOD dealt with a giant gang war, but you remember what happens to Knockout Ned, Little Ze and our hero reporter. CONSTANT GARDENER’s best scenes are in the first hour when events focus on our heroes, Justin and Tessa.

Tessa is played by Rachel Weisz, and every 4-6 months she pops up in a film giving a good, solid performance. Here, at last, she gives a truly great performance. I don’t know how her name came up for a part where Emily Watson is probably the obvious choice. Tessa’s strong will here has some of the marks of Weisz’s work in the MUMMY movies. But those are cartoons, and her Tessa is the most real she has ever felt on screen. Tessa is a complex mix of love, secrecy and moral choices, and Weisz hits every beat with a level of authenticity rarely found in any actor. She embodies Tessa soul and spirit, and it also makes her sexier than I’ve ever seen her before.

Ralph Finnes’ Justin is the perfect counter-balance. Finnes usually eschews overwrought theatrics and plays his characters inward. (Even his psycho turn in RED DRAGON was oddly calm.) This is one of his best performances, particularly in his scenes with Weisz. His investigations in the later sequences are never just about solving a crime. The discoveries are personal revelations, you feel him transforming from a passive observer into a complete person.

Meirelles’ has a real eye for composition, and his use of colors is like visual poetry. There’s a sex scene early in the film that’s really steamy even though there is no nudity. The colors in his African section pop off the screen like an animated film. The pace is less rushed than in CITY OF GOD and some shaky-cam scenes are a little too shaky. But he makes some bold choices that enrich the film more deeply than the genre deserves, and while the pace may lag in the final stretch, the final five minutes is perfect.


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