Small garden, big pharm
The Constant Gardener
The Constant Gardener stars Ralph Fiennes as the aptly named Justin Quayle, a timid mid-level diplomat stationed with the British Embassy in Kenya. The colorless Quayle is married to Tessa (Rachel Weisz), his temperamental opposite—passionate and committed where he is reticent, and brash, even abrasive, where he is polite and circumspect.
Rather, she was all those things. As the movie opens, Tessa is already dead, brutally murdered on her way back from a trip to northern Kenya with a Kenyan doctor (Hubert Koundé) who was her associate in working to improve health conditions for the poor. He was also, according to gossip in the insular little diplomatic community, her lover. And he has disappeared.
Almost immediately upon getting the news of Tessa’s death, Quayle flashes back to their first meeting in London, when she discomfited him with a blistering denunciation of the Iraq war. This, paradoxically, led to dinner, then sex and then marriage, with Tessa joining Quayle as he was posted to Kenya. It is through flashbacks like this, which come seemingly at random and unbidden to Quayle, that we come to know Tessa and to understand the work she did that led to her death.
Jeffrey Caine’s script is adapted from the novel by John Le Carré, and there’s not a lot of conventional suspense in it. Le Carré's villains are this year’s lefty-trendy corporate bad guys, the pharmaceutical industry. I haven’t read the book, but the movie seems so eager to finger the industry that we learn almost immediately who and what is behind Tessa’s murder: She was killed because she and her doctor friend were getting too close to exposing the callous schemes of a multinational drug maker. This is no great spoiler; you can learn as much from watching the movie’s preview trailer or reading the cover blurb on the book. Because Caine and director Fernando Meirelles spill the beans so early, the movie loses narrative momentum and, at 129 minutes, it feels 15 or 20 minutes too long.
Meirelles and his cinematographer, César Charlone, adopt the same visual style they brought to their international breakout hit City of God: jittery, vertiginous camera work, darting from place to place and slipping in and out of focus, as if the camera were only accidentally catching the action. When, as in City of God, the actors are unknowns, it can give a movie a patina of documentary realism. But here, with actors we’ve seen before and know as actors—not only Fiennes and Weisz, but also Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite, Gerard McSorley and others—it looks more like an affectation. This is a style that fairly screams “reality TV,” and I suspect that in the future it will look like the handheld camerawork of 1960s movies does now, as dated as expressionist montages or title cards saying, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch.”
But there’s something else afoot in The Constant Gardener that’s much more interesting than the savaging of pharmaceutical straw men or the mock-doc visual style. As Quayle is spurred to action to find the truth behind Tessa’s murder, he also discovers the truth of their marriage. He sees the personal and political reality behind her actions that he had formerly ignored, preferring to putter around among his plants and flowers rather than make waves and face distasteful facts.
I want to be very careful here, because this is something that really can be spoiled: Justin Quayle is the constant gardener is both senses of the word, one before Tessa’s death, and the other after. Beforehand, he is constant as in “incessant,” seeking refuge in gardening from what he fears is happening to his marriage. Afterward, he is constant as in “steadfast,” ignoring warnings to let the “proper people” handle the investigation and, in the process, seeing events and overheard conversations in a profoundly different and truer light.
Fiennes and Weisz’s rapport, in the flashbacks and occasional fantasies punctuating Quayle’s journey, is The Constant Gardener‘s major asset, and those scenes are its narrative core. They turn the movie from a conventional political tract to an emotional rite of discovery.