Kenya’s poverty takes a leading role

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Kenya’s poverty takes a leading role


“The Constant Gardener” goes through the motions as a thriller: A shady death in a foreign country, cryptic snippets of dialogue, misunderstood letters and then the climactic revelation of the conspiracy at the heart of it all. But it works better as a love letter to a continent and a class too often neglected in cinema, the African poor.
For nearly half a century, John le Carre’s reputation has been of the thinking spy novelist, who preferred psychology to explosions and moral ambiguity to blind jingoism. But the “The Constant Gardener” is not one of his better efforts. In it, a British diplomat in Nairobi (Ralph Fiennes) pieces together the solution to the mystery of the death of his wife (Rachel Weisz), while facing doubts about her fidelity.
As a spy flick, “Constant Gardener” belongs to the post-Cold War generation. With the KGB a distant memory, epic battles between superspies aren’t as much fun as they used to be. Nowadays, conspiracies that tie together big business and the governments of the developed and developing worlds are the fuel of political thrillers. Corporations are the new Evil Empires.
Unfortunately, the conspiracy theory angle in “Gardener” falls flat. It’s a typical tale of a pharmaceutical company carrying out unauthorized tests of a dangerous new drug, and the build-up to the inevitable revelation feels tedious.
But the uncharacteristically conventional le Carre plot has been filmed in a manner so fresh and stimulating you may not even notice. In that sense, the choice of Fernando Meirelles to direct was truly an inspired one. His “City of God” (2002) captured the swarming energy of Rio de Janiero’s suburban slums, and he brings that talent to “The Constant Gardener,” shooting in the real impoverished Nairobi and Sudanese neighborhoods in which the book is set.
The teeming, kinetic spontaneity he draws out of Kibera, Kenya, the largest slum in Africa, is the film’s greatest accomplishment. Meirelles uses quick cuts instead of wide shots to establish scenes, many of which are unstaged, with real people, not extras, breathing excitement into the film and giving it a documentary air.
For the first time, African poverty is more than a one-dimensional plot device ― these are real people with real laughter and tears, and Meirelles and his characters treat them that way. In fact, the film’s African scenes, full of bustle and life, are a sharp contrast to the moribund, deteriorating Old World that appears in the European scenes. Aiding Meirelles’s expert control of atmosphere is a lively and varied score by Alberto Iglesias.
The actors who inhabit this world are as tepid as the thriller storyline. Rachel Weisz is delightful as the gregarious revolutionary diplomatic bride, but Fiennes starts the film blank and despondent and only gets more so. Bill Nighy and Danny Huston make hardly threatening villains.
The real stars of “The Constant Gardener” are Kenya and its people. If only Meirelles could recut the film as an impressionist documentary and amputate the unnecessary conspiracy plot. This may be one case where the making-of feature turns out more interesting than the film itself.

The Constant Gardener
Drama / English
129 min.
Opens Thursday

by Ben Applegate
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