Fernando Meirelles’ new film examines corrosive impact of greed and doubt
The many issues plaguing the African continent makes it a natural setting for conflict, both political and personal, and the new film “The Constant Gardener” skillfully combines both. The film is based on the John Le Carre novel, but the story of a diplomat’s wife working to expose large pharmaceutical companies using Africans as guinea pigs does not play out at a potboiler plotted to turn pages; news like this could conceivably come out of almost any African country today.
The film begins with British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) learning of the death of his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) and her traveling companion, leaving him to investigate not only why she died but also whether or not she really loved him. Consequently, the story unfolds in a series of flashbacks. We see how Tessa meets Justin in London and in short order become lovers and marry. Because the flashbacks are not in chronological order, we learn whether this was a love match or merely a marriage of convenience in the same way Justin does.
Tessa’s actions early in the film certainly suggest that she may have been much more interested in using Justin to get to Kenya than in being his wife. The film’s title refers to Justin’s hobby, gardening, in which he is involved at the moment we meet him as he learns of Tessa’s death. His interest in botany underscores a sheltered quality in Justin, a surprising characteristic for someone who is supposed to be worldly, but as a diplomat, Justin is typically expected to parrot his government’s policies.
When Tessa meets him as he delivers a speech on behalf of a more senior diplomat, he is flustered when asked for his own opinion on a subject. The political and personal are juxtaposed in this film in very much the way they were by Hitchcock. As Justin begins to investigate his wife’s activities, he soon finds himself in as much danger as she had been. Not unlike Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill in “North By Northwest,” Ralph Fiennes’ dapper, proper Quayle is forced to get his hands dirty. He starts out perfectly pressed but by the end of his investigation, he’s a sweaty, rumpled mess, the price for living in reality.
The film’s casting works perfectly. Ralph Fiennes conveys a certain wide-eyed innocence at first, giving way to anger and frustration as he comes to terms with what his wife might have, and might not have, done. Rachel Weisz exudes seductiveness; just put her next to any man on screen and you immediately suspect she’s up to something.
Danny Huston, as a fellow diplomat named Sandy, is smitten with Tessa and she seems willing to bargain sexually, if necessary, to expose the pharmaceutical giant’s crimes. Huston plays the two-faced lothario quite well. Pete Postlethwaite is perfectly cast as a doctor who knows too much, giving Fiennes a worthy screen partner in the film’s best confrontation.
Director Fernando Meirelles, nominated for an Oscar for “City of God,” uses the film’s locations to his advantage. The drab grayness of London and Berlin is contrasted to the vibrant colors of Kenya, where Tessa seems happiest. Since the story alternates between Tessa’s past and Justin’s present search for what happened, revealing information at just the right time is crucial, and Meirelles keeps the right pace. For most of the film, you’re never completely sure what Tessa’s real motivations were, an essential element in maintaining the dramatic tension. The underlying conflict over Tessa’s loyalties also lends the drama a critical human dimension, putting “The Constant Gardener” in a league with Hitchcock’s film, rather than it being a 007 movie with a high-minded storyline.
Africa is a major character in the film as well. When Tessa loses her own baby during childbirth, she breastfeeds a child whose mother is too sick to do so on her own. Meirelles uses crowd scenes to show the rich chaos of the African marketplace, as well as quite literally the street theater. Early on, we see a snippet of a play about AIDS being performed al fresco, one that proffers the naive fear that you can catch HIV from sneezes. The film also suggests the everyday dangers of African life, where murder sometimes results from conflict over a mere pittance, never mind a pharmaceutical windfall.
In the film’s one gay surprise, Tessa has to point out that homosexuality is “ illegal here.”
“The Constant Gardener” is a nice entry into what has been a rather undistinguished summer season for Hollywood. Fiennes, Weisz, and Meirelles all put in Oscar-worthy work here, so it’s a surprise this movie is not being released later in the year. Perhaps a tale of large drug manufacturers shortchanging African patients will be deemed too political, but the film manages to deploy the thriller format to educate as well as entertain, something we don’t often expect Hollywood to do.