Since seeing City of God, a truly impressive film, catching another from director Fernando Meirelles has been a to-do. The Constant Gardner was his follow up, coming three years after City of God. Like in the previous film, here too we find a narrative composed in pieces. It is not traditional. The murder happens first, and we spend half of our time in the past and half pushing forward. As thrillers tend to do, The Constant Gardner focuses on secret scandals and cover ups, but it is also a thriller in regard to a specific marriage, and the tumultuous period in Justin’s relationship with Tessa before her death.
As with any thriller, the plot here is largely thick and convoluted. The Constant Gardner, quite impressively, manages to pull it all together in a way that seems to be fairly straightforward and logical. For the majority of the film however it is dense and tough, and it is hard to tell exactly what scent Justin is following. Something is up, we can see that plainly, but what specifically we really can’t piece together. This is a natural part of thrillers - their confusion adds to the suspense. Neither we nor the characters know exactly what is happening. It works surprisingly well, and perhaps it being a staple of the genre allows us to forgive this difficulty.
As in City of God, Meirelles does a fantastic job showing us the culture of a country so different from ours. Here we are in Kenya. We learn about clinics and drug testing. We see packed markets and massive lines for AIDS tests. Meanwhile, rich white men throw parties. The camera shows Kenya to be more lively than the world Justin came from. He is a British diplomat. As it turns out, Britain is a deeply gray, desaturated country. It looks like a bore, and if this is to be believed, I would not recommend going there. It may be a small bit overdone, but it gets the point across - something is fishy among the fancy/important/rich people that Justin works with (their actual positions are mentioned, but still difficult to nail down - that whole thriller issue, you know?).
The finest movement here is the way that Meirelles weaves together both the drug company conspiracy and the overt waning of Justin and Tessa’s marriage. She spends much of her time with a good friend named Arnold. He is flirtatious with her - even Justin suspects something between them. In another scene, we see Tessa offer herself to a man as a bribe for information. Having seen all of this, it’s almost clear that their marriage is a sham - but of course, there is so much more to learn. The way the truth of their marriage unfolds to Justin is among the smartest applications of thriller plot mechanics. Like any point of a thriller’s conspiracy, it comes in pieces and realizations. Here, it’s actually quite clearly laid out.
The downside here is that Justin doesn’t really seem all that worthy of love. Sure, he’s lovable - he’s like a teddy bear, soft and quiet, but he isn’t enough of a person to truly love. He greets Tessa with goofy smiles and an awkward charm. It’s hardly enough to hang a relationship on. Tessa, in fact, is the one with the story here. Justin is simply trying to unravel it all. Tessa, who begins with no involvement whatsoever, becomes entangled in something fairly massive. We could have watched this from her point of view. What we get is Justin’s, likely because Tessa made mistakes along the way, but then again, so does Justin. It’s an interesting exercise in point of view. We receive two halves a story simultaneously, the front and the back. It’s all forward moving, and the flashbacks always feels nearer to present than past.
The Constant Gardner is a fine thriller. It’s application of the genre to a relationship is a brilliant turn, but the unraveling itself is little better than in any other thriller you’ll find. What sets it apart as a better film is Meirelles’s filmmaking. We see a new world, and for once, the conspiracy is something feasible. This is not some entirely convoluted long running conspiracy, this is a reflection, at least in some small way, of the current state of another part of the world. The Constant Gardner cannot quite compare to Meirelles’s previous film, but then again, few films could. Still, this is a fine effort, and a great exercise in this genre.
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