Following the near Oscar success of last year’s Hotel Rwanda, Hollywood returns again to the plight of modern Africa. This time it’s Kenya, where British diplomat Ralph Fiennes finds his outspoken, politically active wife, played by Rachel Weisz, murdered while travelling through the lawless outer reaches of the country.
Based as it is on a novel by thriller writing legend John Le Carré, a conspiracy lurks beneath the killing, made to look like the work of bandits.
And so lies the premise behind what appears to be one of those films that is designed to win wild praise and multiple awards: an epic mystery centred on a strong central performance from an actor lauded by all and sundry as one of the finest working today. A tragic, complex, old-fashioned tale of love and grief spanning several continents with sweeping vistas and stunning cinematography, luscious music and with a backdrop of timely topicality. The sort of film, we are constantly told, they simply don’t make any more.
Added to the strong base that is two fine leads, top-notch source material and a broad yet compelling backdrop of highly topical political intrigue lies a well-paced yet sensitive script from Jeffrey Caine, the man behind Peirce Brosnan’s fine first Bond outing Goldeneye.
But a story so sprawling could have been lost in the hands of a less capable director. Thankfully, therefore, the man behind the camera is Fernando Meirelles, Oscar-nominated Brazilian director of the superb City of God, amply aided by the lush visual flair of his cinematographer from that movie, César Charlone. As with that earlier movie, Meirelles and Charlone have managed to produce something that always looks harshly beautiful, no matter how grotty or run down – or even how naturally wonderful – the subject at which they point their camera.
From the wilds of Africa, Feinnes’ mild-mannered, gardening-obsessed diplomat finds himself trekking across three continents in search of the truth behind his wife’s death. This provides all kinds of excuses for yet more wonderful camerawork and ever more layers of intrigue, as he exploits his diplomatic status to unearth a conspiracy – as the genre would dictate – far wider than a mere covered-up murder.
But adhering to genre does not have to detract from a movie. The Godfather, after all, pays minute attention to the rules of the gangster genre of which it is the masterpiece, just as The Maltese Falcon adheres to the peculiarities of detective movies without ever suffering.
With another performance from Feinnes so natural it almost seems like he’s not acting, a deeply involving story, well-paced script, expert direction and wonderful cinematography, The Constant Gardener will certainly vie for a position near the top of any chart of the best conspiracy thrillers of recent years.
If you like spy movies, murder mysteries or even just involving, intelligent filmmaking of any genre, this is one not to be missed. Come March, the Academy will be calling.