Tuesday, 15 November 2005

Review: The Constant Gardener

The Constant Gardener, directed by the now-great Fernando Meirelles - famed for his co-helming of City of God, is one of the most visually rich, beautiful, and morally challenging ever presented in the context of a "Hollywood" production, and, arguably, some of the textures, colours, and cinematographic palette in general, represent the finest work done since Gregg Toland's reinvention of the style-content balance in Citizen Kane.

That is, as an exercise in an epic revaluation of how rich Western eyes see the "poor" world of Africa, the film is an aesthetic masterpiece - the drained cityscape of a Waste Land-like London contrasting explosively with the stunning, riotous splendour of colour that is the African landscape.

The film is also significant for presenting situations and images which are strikingly alien to the Western gaze, simply because they constantly seek to pull focus from the (mainly) white characters and situate the action in the faces of the "extras" - as Carol Reed used to do. In this case, the "extras" are the third world, and the director is developing something of an oeuvre based on giving more than dignity back to this return of the repressed. The film is a first bubbling to the surface of the guilt and anguish continuing capitalist exploitation and neo-colonialism is visiting upon Africa and the world's poorest.

What the film is not - despite rave reviews to the contrary - is a narrative or literary masterwork. That is, the written (and acted) screenplay is merely good. The political exposition is at times clumsy, over-determined and simplistic - even to a Guardian reader and Oxfam supporter such as myself. Big Pharma may be corrupt, even potentially murderous, but that doesn't mean its "sinister representatives" should be portrayed like Bourgeois Pigs in some agitprop student film, swilling wine and toasting soaring profits, or greyly dining in shadowy Pall Mall clubs like some latter-day Moriarty. Also, the tired trope of the amiable nerd-kid who can crack into computers and "zoom in on" the faces of people in crowds left me somewhat incredulous - was this the best they could come up with?

Only in the German "spy" scenes does the movie move into territory once so well-mined by The Odessa File, and improved upon recently by Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass in their also-stylish Bourne series: that eerie, casual and thuggish sort of violence that is always more terrifying when set in bleak Berlin.

The theme of searing grief finds itself a lackluster objective correlative that quickly lapses in to pathetic fallacy, as the gardener of the title wilts in overgrown, abandoned, weed-strewn backyards, his widower's pale face pressed up to the cold glass between him and his edenic past. Only in the last reel do the violence and pathos of such loss come together, in an unforgettable close up, which is haunting.

Danny Huston (the most under-rated actor now working in America) performs superbly, but even then, his British accent is mid-Atlantic at best. I have long felt Ralph Fiennes did his best work as a Nazi. What is extraordinary is that a film could feature Pete Postlethwaite's cabbage-patch-doll face on top of a ludicrous South African accent and still be a great movie.

As in the best of Lang, Reed and Welles, the mise-en-scene, and directorial vision, exceed the plot's thriller elements, in this instance to create a statement about love and exploitation that is timeless, and yet startlingly contemporary. There are scenes in this film that actually, as they appear, signal things never quite seen this way before.
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