4 stars (out of four)
An old Hollywood adage about movie adaptations says that good novels make bad movies and bad, pulpy novels make great movies.
It's a fallacy, of course. Good books make good movies all the time. David Fincher sharpened and expanded Chuck Palahniuk's "Fight Club," and Robert Redford captured Norman Maclean's pathos and poetry in "A River Runs Through It."
Very seldom, however, do movies illuminate a print work, mine from it new emotional resonance and thematic tensions. Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles accomplishes exactly this in his translation of John le Carre's "The Constant Gardener," a sweaty, vital masterpiece that's always one step ahead of its audience.
Ralph Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a low-level British diplomat living in AIDS-stricken Kenya. His activist wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz), who had been investigating a large pharmaceutical company, is found brutally raped and murdered in the film's opening moments.
Returning to the screen for the first time since 2002, Fiennes plays Justin with muscular restraint. He's a bland, shapeless character who gradually finds definition on a grief-fueled journey to unravel the forces behind Tessa's murder.
Meirelles, who awed us with 2002's Oscar-nominated "City of God," downshifts with "The Constant Gardener," taking a more measured, thoughtfully modulated approach, with longer takes and sweeping vistas. Gone are the frenetic quick cuts and visual fireworks, replaced with almost painterly disposition.
When Justin learns his wife's fate, the director keeps a static frame focused on his face in an extremely long take. His eyes barely move, his face subtly contorts in a portrait of a man dying inside.
Moreover, Meirelles' slow-burning thriller defies strict genre conventions. It's at once a spy movie devoid of gunplay, a political treatise against drug corporation policies and a tightly calibrated murder mystery. But at its core, "The Constant Gardener" is a love story -- the most tragic kind -- as Justin only comes to understand his wife as he investigates her death.
Le Carre has enjoyed high-quality adaptations in the past, particularly Martin Ritt's "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold." But adaptations of le Carre's work have been notoriously difficult (see "The Tailor of Panama," "The Russia House"), particularly because his characters' rich internal lives don't always translate easily to a visual medium.
I read "The Constant Gardener" when it came out in 2001 but found it less satisfying than his previous work. Perhaps it was the fractured narrative, the arid prose or the fact that I never really feel close to Tessa. Perhaps I had been too full of expectations from le Carre's previous spy-thriller books to pick up the nuances of a novelist expanding his genre, both in terms of theme and geography.
But onscreen, Meirelles finds the heart of le Carre's story, underplaying a countrywide search for Tessa's laptop, zeroing in on the Quayles' strange marriage of opposites and bringing Kenya itself into sharp focus. Most importantly, Meirelles injects a sense of hope and boundless visual energy into le Carre's story.
Filmed on location in Kenya, "The Constant Gardener" is an ensemble piece, with Fiennes and Weisz in front of the camera, director Meirelles and cinematographer Cesar Charlone behind it. Both Meirelles and Charlone imbue the film with an uncanny sense of place and color. Impoverished Kenyan locales burst with fashion, local plays, music and bustling markets.
One of the few weaknesses of Meirelles' current cut, however, is the lack of substantial African characters. Recent interviews with the director mention an entire excised subplot about a Kenyan's struggle with AIDS, edited out for simplicity's sake. Despite the cultural loss, Meirelles was right to cut it -- this is Justin's movie, his heartsick quest. But whatever Meirelles loses with the omission, he gains in political potency. Seldom have African landscapes and culture been portrayed with such intimacy and power. Unlike the abstract consequences in le Carre's Cold War novels, the politics of African debt and disease in "The Constant Gardener" are horrific and breathlessly immediate.
"The Constant Gardener"
Directed by Fernando Meirelles; screenplay by Jeffrey Caine; based on the novel by John le Carre; photographed by Cesar Charlone; production designed by Mark Tildesley; music by Alberto Iglesias; edited by Claire Simpson; produced by Simon Channing-Williams. A Focus Features release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 2:09. MPAA rating: R (for language, some violent images and sexual content/nudity).
Justin Quayle - Ralph Fiennes
Tessa Quayle - Rachel Weisz
Sandy Woodrow - Danny Huston
Sir Bernard Pellegrin - Bill Nighy
Lorbeer - Pete PostlethwaiteCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times