The producers of The Constant Gardener, saddled with one of the least exciting titles for a thriller ever (thanks to John Le Carré, who invented the title for his novel on which the film is based), did the smartest thing they could have done by hiring Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles to helm this Africa-based story of murder and corporate conspiracy. Applying his third-world sensibilities (showcased so well in his last feature, the extraordinary City of God, shot in the slums of Rio starring local kids) to an otherwise disappointing whodunnit, Meirelles injects the film with color and life.
I read an interview with Meirelles in which he said he chose to shoot on location in Kenyan shantytowns with handheld cameras so that between takes, while the professional actors were being made up or whatever, he could turn the cameras around and "shoot a documentary", capturing the real life around the production. The results show: The Constant Gardener explodes with you-are-there cutaways to children walking the streets, birds flying by, a rusty truck careening down a dirt road, and suddenly you believe the story because you see star Ralph Fiennes walking amongst normal Africans, not paid extras, breathing Kenyan air and smelling Kenyan decay.
Thanks to this realism and Cesar Charlone's richly saturated cinematography, The Constant Gardener is incredible to look at. As for its story – about a mild-mannered British diplomat (Fiennes) who finds his courage while investigating the murder of his activist wife (Rachel Weisz) – it chugs along at a good pace, slowly tightening the screws as Fiennes uncovers dark secrets about a drug company providing medication to poor Africans... only to peter out in the third act, with a string of predictable revelations wearily explained to Fiennes by the very men behind his wife's murder.
Meirelles tries to cover for the weak climax by reemphasizing the love story. And although he and Fiennes effectively depict the character's sense of loss, they can't save the film from some third act dullness, even with a couple of modest chase scenes.
Still, the film is timely, disturbing, and so rich with the texture and rhythms of Africa that it makes Hotel Rwanda look like a TV movie. Meirelles is a hugely talented director, and it's worth seeing The Constant Gardener just to admire his masterful work.