The Constant Gardener
dir. Meirelles
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In 2002, Fernando Meirelles blazed onto the scene with one of the most astonishing debut films of the decade, City of God. Set at a breakneck pace, God told the story of teen drug dealers in the slums of Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s. Innovative camera work took cues from The Matrix as Meirelles portrayed a gritty, colorful look at slum life that covered turf warfare as smartly as it covered body-popping dance parties.

Unfortunately, Meirelles follow-up is The Constant Gardener, a valiant adaptation of an utterly lame John LeCarre novel. I certainly don't fault Meirelles for wanting to try his hand with a crossover thriller; I do, however, fault LeCarre for writing such a bland, paint-by-numbers plot.

The Constant Gardener stars Ralph Fiennes as apologetic, ineffective diplomat Justin Quayle and Rachel Weisz, as Quayle's wife, Tessa, an outspoken idealist. The two of them are in Northern Kenya, where, in between suspected extramarital dalliances, Tessia discovers that an evil pharmaceutical company is testing its new products—with lethal results—on impoverished Africans. Well, Tessa's not going to take this lying down, so she starts raising hell—and, predictably enough, gets whacked. Now here's an innovative plot device for you: Big pussy Fiennes decides that he has to avenge his wife's assassination by getting to the bottom of his wife's investigations, and—surprise, again!—things get hairy.

Every cliché gets wheeled out in turn: Mysterious black Mercedes with tinted windows, anonymous death threats, surveillance cameras, and, as if to prove its timeliness, web video conferencing with gripping dialogue such as, "I suggest you quit all this snooping around and put Tessa's death behind you!" (Other gems include: "What do you mean you don't have any record of her existence?!" and "I have to finish what she started!")

Despite the hackneyed story, Meirelles directs with as much gusto as the plot allows. As in his first feature, the movie truly comes alive in the slum scenes, with visually intoxicating shots of feral dogs, street preachers, and beggars. Even Pete Postlethwaite and Danny Huston round out an excellent supporting cast—but, by and large, there's no saving this film from the inescapable tar pit of thriller formulas. ■