Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

The Constant Gardener

I had originally planned to get out of the house today by going to play basketball. But the JCC seemed far away and I was feeling stiff and tired. So I made the blessedly short drive over to the Foothills Mall to see The Constant Gardener. When Kim and I saw the preview, we thought the film looked lame. Because it has received excellent reviews from critics we like and a film for grown-ups sounded good today, she decided to see it this afternoon, inspiring me to go see an earlier show before her.

I'm delighted that I did. The Constant Gardener is the film that the remake of The Manchurian Candidate tried to be but wasn't. It looks great. The acting is understated and precise. The plot is tight. And it manages to deliver a pointed political message without losing sight of the paradoxes that turn a morality play into something more like Greek tragedy by foregrounding the binds that decent people face when they are caught up in structures that use their decency against them. Indeed, The Constant Gardener reminded me most of last year's Code 46, which explicitly referenced Oedipus Rex in the context of a medical conspiracy plot. The Constant Gardener was less overtly postmodern or allegorical, yet resonated in similar ways.

I've been meaning to read the John Le Carré novel on which The Constant Gardener is based for a couple years now, ever since Kim gave it high marks. But I'm committed to reading his novels in sequence in what little free time I have for reading that has nothing to do with work. Still, I've read enough Le Carré to have a pretty good sense of what the filmmakers had to leave out. I'm willing to bet they did a good job of capturing the novel's texture, which is not an easy thing to do when you convert 400+ pages into a film of a little more than two hours.

I preferred the first 2/3 of the film to the last 1/3, chiefly because the conclusion of the narrative was a little too formulaic in its presentation. What made the first part of The Constant Gardener so powerful was its fluid cutting back and forth across multiple timelines. The scenes in which the protagonist Justin suspects his wife Tess of infidelity or those in which he recalls those suspicions later are particularly strong in this regard.

Watching The Constant Gardener made me want to write something more involved on films with its sort of aesthetics -- claustrophobic framing, loaded use of rack focus, deliberate foregrounding of the background -- and the way audiences do or don't respond to them. I had the distinct impression that the people around me weren't seeing the picture I was seeing, even though they seemed to be liking it. Could it be that films like The Constant Gardener are doing something equivalent to what the melodramas of Douglas Sirk and other directors of his stamp did in the 1950s, using a compelling plot as the vehicle for a more sophisticated message that is conveyed in the margins of the screen? I mean, I realize that this sort of analysis is an easy move for people like me to make. Yet I really do get the sense that there's a stylistic approach building in a number of national cinemas that is self-consciously intended to communicate on more than one level for specific political reasons.

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