Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Constant Valentine

On this day of cupid, chocolates, and that most heartening of sights, mildly desperate guys lining up at Macy's for last minute panic-purchases--like SNL said a couple of weeks ago, nothing says "I love you and totally didn't forget about this day like a teddy bear holding a heart"--my thoughts turn towards The Constant Gardener, a film that is suffused with heartbreak, and finds romance in the most unlikely places. (This is no doubt old news, but I'm still catching up on some 2005 Oscar screenings, and this was perfect for this past weekend's whiteout.) With John Le Carré lending the source material, The Constant Gardener is erected on the scaffolding of a spy novel: Rachel Weisz rightly suspects that drug companies are killing impoverished Africans, under the guise of clinical drug trials that in any developed part of the world would be illegal. Weisz gets too close to the truth, and is offed for her snooping somewhere out in the Sudan. Her husband, a British diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) is left to pick up the pieces, and uncover the same information that precipitated his wife's murder.

That quest essentially hews to the conventions of a political thriller, but Mereilles elevates his tale above standard dross by intertwining the espionage intrigue with a love story that's more than mere throwaway. A critical mass of oblique hints--half-heard conversations, cryptic letters, self-serving innuendo, and outwardly compromising situations--are enough to sow doubt in Fiennes mind, who strongly believes that Weisz was cheating on him, even until the very moment of her death. And as Fiennes gets deeper into the multi-billion dollar plot, he encounters something unexpected: every moment of discovery on the government-drug company axis is tied up with an attendant revelation of Weisz's fidelity. Accordingly, the narrative arcs in The Constant Gardener, run in two contradictory trajectories: the beautiful little frissons that come with untangling the conspiracy are muted by Fiennes' mounting despair at his own unfounded distrust. Finnes makes this all palpable without histrionics: fathomless pain is conveyed in solemn silence with the merest deadened glance; despair with the subtlest buckling of his shoulders. Few actors working today are as adept as Ralph Fiennes at acting's great paradox: conveying the workings of a febrile mind under a layer of surface calm, and his pain is even more keenly felt for all that struggling, hard-won veneer of resolve. And though Weisz does a fine job, her Oscar nomination only makes Fiennes' snub that much more evident. I can appreciate Heath Ledger's brooding and Straithairn's and Hoffman's verisimiltude, but because of his layered, textured performance of fathomless pain and love rediscovered far too late, there was no better actor this year than Mr. Finnes. (Not to mention his sneering, serpentine menace in Harry Potter--I'm scrrrrrred just thinking about it.)

So, yes, digressions aside, The Constant Gardener was just about the most romantic film I saw this year--from the awkwardness of a fresh romance put forth in halting, probing camera work; to the surreal instant comfort of finding one's soulmate, rendered through a discreetly observational camera that respects its characters space; and finally an expression of love so penetrating that it bends nature to someone's will. In the final shot, Fiennes' affection is so profound that the mere mention of Weisz's name sends birds starting into the sunburnt sky.


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