Director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) turns his Brazilian –cinematic—jujitsu on an emotionally gnarled book by England’s spy king, John LeCarré, with an equatorial glare that dares the audience to keep up with characters bathed in every shade of black, white and gray. A movie this ambitious will win over some audiences, attracted by fine acting and stylized directing, but will lose others in its necessary but lengthy flashbacks and its melancholy. While the end is a bitter pill to swallow, the message of redemption through love sweetens the taste.
Within the first minutes, Tessa (Rachel Wiesz), impassioned young wife of Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), is dead. Under the harsh Kenyan sun, mid-level British diplomat Justin must unravel the motive for her murder as well as her reasons for not confiding in him, his guilt for having not protected her, and his horror at having faltered in his faith in her. His search takes him to England, to Berlin, to Sudan, to Kenya’s wilds, via flashbacks and breakdowns, but ultimately it takes him back to Tessa once he can at last understand the events that tore her from him.
Some audiences might groan at the first signs of a pharmaceutical conspiracy being the cause of Tessa’s death –what movie hasn’t had a heartless, profit-minded beast of a company as the two-dimensional baddie of late?—but that catalyst merely serves as a means to an end. It is in the characters, individual conundrums, where the story takes place and Kenya is a scene-stealing diva, as enigmatic as the best of the human actors. Meirelles shoots the story in that grainy, jerky style that favors harshly-lit honesty over romantic niceties. Those looking for another windswept Fiennes-in-Africa love affair of the “English Patient” variety should go elsewhere. The camera lingers instead on crowded shantytowns punctuated by drifts of garbage, on bodies at the morgue, on a crowded market where serpentine lines wait for an AIDS test.
Fiennes as Justin does an excellent job displaying a vast range of emotions through the filter of self-contained understatement, the constant –i.e. loyal—gardener of title. With fine performances by Danny Huston, Hubert Koundé, Richard McCabe, and Bill Nighy, there is no dearth of noteworthy acting on the screen and it is in the small personal skirmishes that the broader conflicts of the film are taking place.
Meirelles is hungry behind the camera, eager to tell the story and happy to turn the lens toward the unusual beauty of Kenya. His enthusiasm, paired with a superb cast, elevates this movie above a typical adventure/romance, but his style –showing the country and the characters warts and all—will leave some audiences longing for a two-dimensional hero to cheer rather than committing to this two-plus hour elegy.
Parents should be aware that this movie is for mature audiences for its themes as well as for its brutality. On-screen characters are killed, chased, beaten, shot and poisoned. There are references to rape, torture, murder, kidnap and theft. There is non-sexual nudity and reference to adultery, sexual favors, AIDS, homosexuality, teenage motherhood. Many scenes depict poverty and related subjects such as thievery, graft, hardship and the perceived low cost of human life. Characters are in peril, whether from rampaging bandits, European thugs, sophisticated business types or their own jealousies. Characters drink and smoke socially. Decisions people make about their personal loyalties, love and passion for justice cause a domino effect, rippling through the lives of those all around.
Families who see this movie should talk about the moral triumphs and failings each character evinces. Which characteristics do you admire? Tessa is the snowball that sets in motion what follows but why must Justin follow the course that he does, especially by the Lake?
Families looking for more of LeCarré’s textured and flawed characters will enjoy Cold War classics “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Smiley’s People”. While easier to find in book form, a search for the BBC miniseries adaptations is well worth the effort as they star one of Britain’s great actors, Alec Guinness, as Smiley, the unassuming mastermind for British counter-espionage.
Many, including “Third Man” author Graham Greene, have called LeCarré’s “The Spy who came in from the Cold” the greatest spy book ever written and some families may wish to watch Richard Burton turn in a superb performance as the title character, a disillusioned double agent, in Martin Ritt’s 1965 adaptation.
For those who enjoy Meirelles fresh if frenetic pace behind the camera, “City of God” is intensely brutal but lyric in scope. It garnered four Academy Award nominations for his vibrant look at characters growing up in a Brazilian favela, or slum.
Thanks to guest critic AME.