Wednesday, November 09, 2011

PERSONAL FAVES: The Constant Gardener

Posted to coincide with Fernando Meirelles’ 56th birthday

Reviewing ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ got me thinking about how well-served John le Carre has been in terms of adaptations. The seven-part TV adaptation of that novel, starring Alec Guinness, is one of the small screen’s finest achievements. It’s big screen counterpart is arguably a classic-in-waiting. Martin Ritt’s ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ is one of the bleakest, most compelling cinematic renderings of the spy story, with a blistering performance from Richard Burton – one of his best.

Even the second tier of le Carre adaptations – Fred Schepisi’s ‘The Russia House’, George Roy Hill’s ‘The Little Drummer Girl’, John Boorman’s ‘The Tailor of Panama’ – are perfectly accomplished and entertaining films. There’s no reason to suspect that Anton Corbijn’s ‘A Most Wanted Man’ – currently in pre-production – will be anything less than a class act.

But above all of these – albeit only by a very short head where ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ and ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ are concerned – is Fernando Meirelles’ ‘The Constant Gardener’, a riveting thriller, a humanitarian manifesto and a j’accuse against corporate greed and political chicanery. A beautiful and emotionally devastating work of cinema.

An opening scene peppered with lacunae gives us a deserted stretch of African coastal road, an overturned vehicle, men piling out of a jeep. The next scene has junior diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) learning of the death of his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) from his seemingly avuncular superior Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston). Tessa was quite the humanitarian – aid worker, activist; the kind of person it would be easily to mislabel a bleeding heart liberal except that the woman had the tenacity of a particularly stubborn bulldog. As well as an unfortunate tendency to rub Justin’s British High Commission colleagues up the wrong way.

The nature of how this extremely unlikely couple got together is the subject of an extended flashback. And as unlikely as their romance is, Meirelles’ portrayal of it is natural, convincing, unforced. It helps, of course, that Fiennes and Weisz – two actors who have never given a bad performance – are on absolute top form here. Weisz’s Academy Award was one of those stand-up-and-applaud moments of Oscar getting it right.

With the murder mystery element in place, and genuine emotionalism underpinning it, Meirelles begins to unravel – unhurriedly but with a palpable sense of tension – a complex web of deceit, secrecy, underhandedness and naïve political allegiance. In one of the most telling moments, a morally compromised but jingoistically indefatigable politico weighs the unholy alliance between government and pharmaceutical corporation in terms of 1,500 British jobs. Murder, conspiracy, malpractice and the violation of a depressed country’s already beleaguered human rights. But 1,500 British jobs, so what ho chaps?

Le Carre’s novel – his best, for my money – is that rarest of beasts: a literary thriller that powers through its narrative with balls-out ferocity; and an incredibly elegant piece of writing that nonetheless seethes with righteous outrage. And so it should. From the existential despair of Alex Leamas in ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ to the moment of almost unwitting complicity on which his latest novel ‘Our Kind of Traitor’ turns, John le Carre has, throughout his career, transcended the inherent cynicism of the espionage drama and grappled with the thorny moral conundrums at the heart of his characters’ tarnished lives.

If, however, le Carre approaches the material from the perspective of an Englishman sick of the snobbery and the bullshit and the old school tie network and all the sneaky nasty little things that are done by the establishment supposedly for the good of all, then Meirelles brings to the table the authenticity and immediacy of his breakthrough film, the magnificent ‘City of God’. With these two movies – ‘The Constant Gardener’ was his follow-up – Meirelles took shaky-cam to an art-form. The African scenes are vibrant, alive, as gorgeous as they are harrowing. Elsewhere, though, he knows when to step back from the action, when to frame his actors in long-shot. When to hold a shot and just let it play out, an all too rare capacity in contemporary filmmaking. Simply put, every frame of ‘The Constant Gardener’ contributes to its whole.

Two other things to mention: the film was produced by Simon Channing Williams, who died two years; le Carre’s latest novel is dedicated in memoriam. Whilst filming on location in Nairobi, the cast and crew were so appalled at the levels of poverty that they established The Constant Gardener Trust (go here and be amazed at what the Trust has achieved), of which le Carre, Meirelles, Weisz and Fiennes are patrons.

One great work of literature; one great work of cinema; one awe-inspiring humanitarian organisation. That’s a pretty good batting average.


BRENT said...

This was impressive and I thought Weisz in particular put in her best performnce by far as an actress.
It goes to show that with a decent screen writer book to film adaptations are not overly difficult. I really can't understand or abide adaptations that mess with a novel.

Neil Fulwood said...

Agreed re: Rachel Weisz. A great actress on any given, but she truly surpassed herself in this film.

Like you, I don't know why so many screenwriters muck around with the structure of the novels they're adapting. 'LA Confidential' might only contain the first quarter of the novel, but it captures the spirit and atmosphere of Ellroy's book perfectly. 'The Constant Gardener' might omit a handful of scenes, but it delivers the elegance, humanity and righteous anger of le Carre's original. The best adaptations are those which strive to preserve as much as possible of the original, their only truncations and omissions being made to preserve a realistic running time and acknowledge the difference in the grammar of film from that of the written word.