This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  September 23, 2005

Gripping family dramas

"The Constant Gardener" and "Junebug" feature outstanding performances


After a wretched movie summer, it’s tempting to overpraise The Constant Gardener as a superior thriller, but Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”) is such a feverish show-off that one leaves the theater in a daze. Ralph Fiennes deserves an Oscar nomination, however, as the title character, Justin Quayle, a gentlemanly British diplomat in Kenya who cares for his flowers and does not want to challenge official collusion. He is finally impelled to action by his “constant” love for Tessa (Rachel Weisz), his beautiful young wife who is murdered for her campaign against a greedy pharmaceutical company that considers the African poor a disposable population.

Tessa is dead for most of the film, but the strong early scene in which she and Justin meet provides the context for everything that follows. He has been pressed into reading a lame speech on British foreign policy at Cambridge; she responds with an angry attack on the war in Iraq and Western domination of the developing world. After the audience leaves, Justin is gentle and comforting. In record time the two are rapturously making love and Tessa is telling him, “I feel safe with you.”

Based on John Le Carré’s novel of the same name, “The Constant Gardener” is hard to follow, in part because Mr. Meirelles hops back and forth in time and never lets us know where events are taking place. Tessa and Justin quickly get married. He is posted to Kenya, and she begins her crusade, creating scandal with a trip into the wilderness with the handsome African-born doctor Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé). At the end we are left with serious questions: Was she using Justin to get to Africa where she could work for the poor? Isn’t it exploitative to put the love of two privileged white people at the center of a story showing the wretched slums of Kibera? When will Westerners get a chance to see a film by an African director centering on the lives of African characters? Nevertheless, “The Constant Gardener” contains powerful criticism of Western control of Africa.

Uruguayan cinematographer César Charlone provides a powerful sense of vitality in the midst of destitution, and rapturous shots of birds flying in formation carry suggestions of a union beyond death. The director’s overheated style, however, only undermines the serious issues at stake. As Mr. Le Carré says in the closing credits, “By comparison with the reality (of the pharmaceutical jungle), my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.”

The cast is excellent. Mr. Fiennes outlines Justin’s evolution from compromise to commitment, and Ms. Weisz makes us understand why the embassy world finds Tessa scandalous, an attractive woman who visits slums while in late pregnancy and raises pointed questions about Western collusion in Africa’s plight. A wonderful lunch scene between Justin and the well-bred British high commissioner, Sir Bernard Pellegrin (Bill Nighy), exposes official hypocrisy, and Danny Huston is convincingly two-faced as Justin’s immediate boss, Sandy Woodrow, who lusts after Justin’s wife but reports her criticisms of official policy to his superiors. Much of Mr. Le Carré’s novel is presented from Sandy’s point of view, which allows irony to dominate; less subtle, the movie is overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of its action.

Junebug is probably the best independent movie of the year. The first feature film directed by Phil Morrison, it got such fine reviews that it is now being shown more widely than originally planned. It may not be a mega-hit because there’s little action, but this offbeat, intimate drama is worth seeking out for the way it subtly and humorously illuminates the complexity of both family and regional relations.

After a brief opening in Chicago, in which George Johnson (Alessandro Nivola) and Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) fall in love at first sight and get married, the rest of the movie is about their visit to Pfafftown, N.C., which George left three years before. His mother’s favorite, he comes back with the attractive, super-sophisticated Madeleine, in great part because she runs an art gallery and wants to sign up an offbeat, bigoted folk artist, David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor), who lives near the family home. George does nothing to prepare his wife for his family, and Madeleine’s efforts to ingratiate herself are unsuccessful with his mother, Peg (Celia Weston), who is suspicious of her British accent and thinks her too thin. In contrast, sister-in-law Ashley (Amy Adams), nine months pregnant, chatters nonstop with this visiting celebrity (“Bet you’ve been to college”). Ms. Adams steals the movie, making us ignore her naiveté and believe in her genuine goodness.

I was afraid the film would mock Southern folkways but Angus MacLachlan’s script shows their positive aspects. George surprises his wife by singing “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling” at a church supper, family values become more than a political pose and the women attending a baby shower for Ashley are unpretentious and friendly. Though her husband, Johnny (George’s jealous younger brother), seems furious at the world and resentful at her pregnancy -- he only shows human warmth when dealing with his fellow workers at a kitchenware factory -- Ashley can tell him, “God loves you just the way you are, but too much to let you stay that way.”

“Junebug” is a film that isn’t afraid of silence, hinting at the intense repression of the family’s emotions. The director sometimes turns his camera on a single object, then moves to the next room. Eugene, George’s father (Scott Wilson), wanders around, pondering where he’d be if he were a misplaced screwdriver, and there are many bits of odd humor. Madeleine’s effort to sign the cranky local artist leaves her absent at the family crisis, but the movie is thoughtful, never judgmental. Fortunately, there is no thesis, except perhaps that family ties are both restricting and life-saving.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular film reviewer. His e-mail:

National Catholic Reporter, September 23, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: