From the Archive: The Constant Gardener


It’s about time for a new Greatish Performances post, and I’ve been mulling over which acting feat to select. One that I’ve batted around as a possibility ever since I launched (or, being honest, stole) the series, is Rachel Weisz’s Oscar-winning turn in The Constant Gardener, if only because it seems to be largely forgotten (she’s not the only supporting acting winner from the decade that is rarely invoked as such). By the time of the awards ceremony, I probably felt as strongly about Weisz deserving the win in her category as any other performer (and this was the year of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sublime turn in Capote), but it turns out I give her only passing attention in my initial review. This is partially attributable to the fact that this was an very early review in my process of rejuvenating my film writing (it was paired with a review of The Aristocrats, which I’ve already shared in this space), but Weisz’s performance is also one of those that grows in strength over time, as it sticks tightly to the memory easy as other aspects of the film fade away. Maybe I do need to write about it at greater length. I definitely owe her a few more words.   

Like any other film adaptation of a John Le Carre novel I’ve ever seen, The Constant Gardener is dense, complicated and, finally, pretty grim about the way the world works. Ralph Fiennes plays a British diplomat stationed in Kenya with his young, impassioned wife (Rachel Weisz). A headstrong idealist, she starts digging into some of the injustices she sees in the world, and faces the sort of repercussions that come when you’re threatening the profit margins of the powerful. This forces her diplomat husband to exit his safe, sheltered world (his lavish home in Kenya may as well be on another planet; it’s that different from where the Kenyans themselves live) and get to the truth of her life and her work.
After a little stretch of just cashing paychecks, Fiennes is in top form again. His greatest skill as an actor is knowing how to internalize his emotions while still signaling the audience everything his character is feeling, and there’s ample opportunity for that trick here. Weisz manages to match him nicely; she’s developed into a deft, forceful actor in recent years. And there’s a nice supporting turn by Bill Nighy, who’s one of those actors who I wouldn’t have recognized even three years ago, but who now proves to be a thrilling addition to any movie he steps into. It greatly enhances the performances that director Fernando Meirelles, following up his Oscar-nominated directorial effort with City of God, is clearly more interested in deeper truth than showy movie moments. There are heavy politics at play here, politics of a global nature, and the sort of personal politics that can be even more devastating. Meirelles is continually playing with our perceptions in subtle ways, making us second-guess the morality of the characters on screen. This is due not so much to genuine moral ambiguity (by the end, there are some fairly clear distinctions between right and wrong), but because we rarely have the entire story. We routinely make judgments on the basis of incomplete pictures. Meirelles seems to be reminded us to always dig deeper, look wider.
As noted, the film does finally develop a point of view, not delivered with self-aggrandizing force, but weary resignation. There is a sort of justice enacted, but there’s no sense that the innocent are spared. They are not rescued, they are not saved. The cycle they are trapped in continues, largely unhindered by the heroic actions on screen. Meirelles is also careful to remind us that governments that may not have been directly engaged in bloodshed have likely been shaking hands with those who are shaking hands with those who have blood on their hands. And that blood transfers.