The Constant Gardener
Director : s Fernando Meirelles
Screenplay : Jeffrey Caine (based on the novel by John Le Carré)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Ralph Fiennes (Justin Quayle), Rachel Weisz (Tessa Quayle), Hubert Koundé (Arnold Bluhm), Danny Huston (Sandy Woodrow), Daniele Harford (Miriam), Bill Nighy (Sir Bernard Pellegrin), Keith Pearson (Porter Coleridge)
The Constant Gardener is a somber, angry, cynical, slow burn of a political potboiler that is also, against all odds, an effectively moving love story. Narratively fragmented and ideologically sharp, it goes right for the jugular of the ugly marriage of corporate and national power, recalling the tense Watergate-era thrillers of the ’70s that wanted to enrage as much as entertain.
Ralph Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a rather dull, midlevel British career diplomat assigned to a post in Kenya. When the film opens, he is seeing his wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), off at an airstrip, and in the next scene he is informed by his colleague, Sandy (Danny Huston), that she has been founded dead along with her driver on the edge of a dry lakebed. The film then drifts back in time, giving us the story of how Justin and Tessa, a fiery and dedicated political idealist, met and quickly married and of how her political activities with a fellow activist, an African doctor named Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), were constantly threatening the paint-drying march of British diplomacy in the Third World.
The core of Tessa’s work involves the activities of big pharmaceutical companies in Africa, particularly their testing of potentially dangerous experimental drugs on people “who don’t matter because they can’t be counted.” Tessa keeps Justin in the dark about her work, apparently part of their agreement when they got married. She appears to have kept other things from him, as well, including a possible affair with Arnold and others. In other words, after her death, Justin comes to the painful and awkward realization that he did not know his wife nearly as well as he thought he did, and his ensuing investigation into her dangerous work reveals as much about the woman he loved as it does about the nasty practices of the fictional pharmaceutical company she was trying to expose. With each of Justin’s new discoveries, Tessa’s memory teeters between that of an exploitative busybody who married Justin to use him and a martyred saint who kept him in the dark to protect him.
Based on John Le Carré’s 2004 novel, The Constant Gardener is the second major feature-film outing for Brazilian direction Fernando Meirelles, whose name was instantly carved in the cinematic map with his stunning 2002 film City of God, which had the energy and aesthetic inventiveness of at least a dozen films. Working again with cinematographer César Charlone, Meirelles pulls back on the visual splashiness, although not so much that The Constant Gardener doesn’t bear the obvious stamp of his background in commercials and music videos.
While Meirelles’ visual audacity worked powerfully in conjunction with the sprawling, multi-linear narrative of City of God, it sometimes feels tacked on to the more somber tonalities of The Constant Gardener. While not nearly as egregious as Tony Scott’s burnished visions of Mexico City in Man on Fire (2004), Meirelles tends to turn the African landscape into an overly heated fever dream of high contrasts and bleeding primary colors, apparently not content to let the actual locations speak for themselves.
Yet, The Constant Gardener works powerfully for most of its running time, on both ideological and emotional levels. It is charged with the strong performances by Fiennes, who transcends his character’s all-too-familiar story arc of rising conscience, and Weisz, who makes Tessa into a startlingly vital presence who bears the brunt of suspicion without ever losing full sympathy. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Jeffrey Caine (GoldenEye) gets too didactic at times, encouraging Meirelles to wear the film’s social consciousness a little broadly on its sleeve by giving us shots of dewy-eyed orphans staring straight into the camera, as if he is afraid we haven’t absorbed the severity of the situation by this point.
Not surprisingly, the more socially and culturally attuned critics have largely slammed the film, their well-intentioned hackles raised immediately at the prospect of yet another liberal-guilt movie featuring a white character adrift among dark faces in an exotic land. Yet, those critics would do well to consider the film’s audience and its potential for speaking to them. After all, the main problem with industrialized Western societies is that they are filled with people like Justin Quayle: fundamentally decent and concerned about the plight of others, but ultimately too comfortable in their own midlevel ruts to really do anything. The raising of Quayle’s conscience is but a small-scale metaphor for what needs to happen in all developed countries if the plight of countries like Africa is ever to be alleviated.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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