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Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005 01:38 am

Third whirled

After a promising start, The Constant Gardener runs in circles

The Constant Gardener

In the opening scene of The Constant Gardener, British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) sees off his wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), as she leaves on a trip from which we know she’ll never return. From a Kenyan airstrip, activist Tessa is traveling with a Red Cross physician to a meeting with an unknown purpose; within a few days, both of them will be found murdered. As Tessa heads to the plane, director Fernando Meirelles keeps the focus on Justin in the foreground as Tessa’s shape dissolves into a blur amid a blast of overexposed glare. That single shot of a man watching his beloved disappear from his life is, quite literally, dazzling.

So it’s perhaps even more disappointing, after such a brilliant opening, to watch the film itself dissolve into a similar blur.

It didn’t have to be like that. Meirelles — the precociously talented, Oscar-nominated director of City of God— actually makes a wise choice early on by focusing not on novelist John Le Carré’s trademark international intrigue but on the relationship between Justin and Tessa. He flashes back to their first meeting in London — establishing a tension between Justin’s go-along-to-get-along career company man and Tessa’s fiery cage-rattler — and their impulsive decision to get married before Justin leaves for an assignment in Africa. There’s a wonderful improvisational rhythm to the interplay between Fiennes and Weisz, a natural chemistry shaped by sharp editing. For a while, this “thriller” is actually a terrific, tragic love story.

But this tale has other fish of another genre to fry. As Justin begins to probe the events surrounding Tessa’s death, he begins to unravel suspicious dealings involving some of his government colleagues — including his boss, Sir Bernard (Bill Nighy), and his best friend, Sandy (Danny Huston) — and pharmaceutical companies doing business in Kenya. He’s shipped back to England, and his life is threatened. It’s quite the setup for an emotion-packed detective story.

But the mystery, such as it is, doesn’t take particularly long to solve. By approximately the end of the first hour, it’s fairly clear who is in bed with whom politically, as are the specific shady activities in which the pharmaceutical company is engaged. Justin spends most of the remaining running time essentially finding additional people to tell him, “Yes, there is indeed a conspiracy.”

It’s true that in a sense, Jeffrey Caine’s screenplay adaptation uses the conspiracy as a red herring. The film is set squarely in the shadow of the current war in Iraq, and the title itself turns Justin’s hobby into a metaphor for people so buried in the minutiae of their lives that they’re unable to see what’s going on in the bigger picture. The Constant Gardener, in theory, becomes as much about Justin learning about himself — and the Tessa he only barely understood when she was alive — as it is about the harsh realities of global economics.

The problem is that everything begins to feel redundant during the film’s final hour. Everything of consequence there is to know about the players in the plot, we know; everything of consequence there is to know about Justin and Tessa, we know. Although Fiennes’ performance and Meirelles’ stylish direction provide some distraction, eventually the repetition of the film’s political message — building up to the trite use of mournful tribal chants and a chest-thumping speech — simply becomes wearying. It could just as easily be titled The Constant Reminders That We Exploit the Third World.

It’s inevitable in the current political climate that some people will see artistry in The Constant Gardener just because they agree with its worldview. Yet — at the risk of reopening that can of Fahrenheit 9/11 worms — there’s a difference between a worthy idea and a great movie. After that remarkable opening, the glare of his own good intentions blinds Meirelles to a story that keeps running in circles.

Also in theaters this week. . .

The Aristocrats [Not rated] A who’s who of comedians tells the same dirty joke in its many forms since the days of Vaudeville. Parkway Pointe

The 40-Year-Old Virgin [R] Nerdy electronic store employee Andy Stitzer is a virgin, a 40-year-old virgin. When his friends find out, they try to rectify matters, but their quest hits a road bump when Stitzer falls in love. ShowPlace East, ShowPlace West

The Transporter 2 [PG-13] Action-packed films about ex-Special Forces operative Frank Martin. Think lots of car chases. ShowPlace East, ShowPlace West

Supercross [PG-13] After the death of their father, two motocross biking brothers are determined to win the Las Vegas Motocross Championships. Parkway Pointe

Underclassmen [PG-13] At an Ivy League university, a detective goes undercover to bust up an auto theft scheme. Parkway Pointe

Valiant [G] A small-fry pigeon named Valiant works hard and become a force to be reckoned with in Great Britain’s Royal Air Force Homing Pigeons Service during World War II. Route 66 Drive-In

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