The Constant Gardener
2005Director: Fernando Meirelles
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz
ar too often praise and universal acclaim can ruin a young talent. What fills a director with confidence can easily reduce him to laziness, as if one can effortlessly toss out another film and have it be as resounding an accomplishment as the first.
After the overwhelming success of City of God Fernando Meirelles found himself charged with that unenviable task of generating a worthy follow-up. Not that the young director hadn’t proved himself capable of greatness, but that whatever was to follow would inevitably suffer by comparison. However, with The Constant Gardener Meirelles demonstrates that with true talent even a conventional potboiler can rise to the status of art, and that the dreaded “English-language” debut from an international breakout filmmaker doesn’t necessarily constitute a sell-out effort.
Having never read the John Le Carre novel upon which this film is based, I can only say that it emerges as a somewhat typical thriller, albeit with flourishes of gritty cynicism and an underlying sense of hopeless paranoia (perhaps not on the level of Pynchon but at least a few shades more intense than most thrillers). This isn’t to say that the story suffers from mediocrity, far from it. Le Carre’s narrative has enough intrigue on its own to drive along an above average film, but in the capable hands of Meirelles it becomes something even grander. In a way, Le Carre’s foundation supplies the director with enough breathing room to really go wild with his style. At times this works to his disadvantage when in instances it becomes clear that Meirelles is simply showing off, but for the most part the two styles blend flawlessly.
"Let us go a-frolicking through the war zone!"
The first half of the film revolves around a fractured narrative structure beginning with the brutal murder of a British diplomat’s young wife. The diplomat is Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes); his wife is Tessa (Rachel Weisz). He loved her deeply, but as the plot spirals backward in time as Justin sorts through his memories of her, we find that he may not have truly known her.
Indeed, the early stages of intimacy between them bear more resemblance to a quick, fiery romance than anything truly long-term, and even when the prospect of marriage arises it appears only to stem from opportunistic reasons rather than any emotional investment.
She uses her connection to Justin to get close to corporate heads whose business practices don’t correspond with her idealist worldview. As she stomps around an elegant party rudely engaging pharmaceutical bigwigs with her ever-present activist companion Arnold Bluhm (Herbert Koundi), Justin wiles away the evening by himself on the outskirts of the party. Whether he’s embarrassed by his wife’s actions or not is hard to say. His meek and polite countenance prevents him from ever saying what he feels even when later on he receives information that points toward an affair between Arnold and Tessa.
His friend and colleague in the British High Commission, Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston), has a different perception. He appears to know more about Tessa than Justin could possibly dream. In addition, his close ties with those in the pharmaceutical business make him privy to information vital to Tessa, allowing him to attempt to exploit her body with lecherous deals. But Tessa’s true concern (one which she conceals from her faithful husband) is to unravel what she believes to be a global conspiracy involving drugs and the exploitation of third world nations.
Through Tessa’s work in Africa, she comes to suspect that a certain drug company has been testing Dypraxsa, an experimental drug of theirs, on patients infected with HIV. By the time Justin, who has until now remained politely detached from most everything, catches up with this narrative chain, the conspiracy has thickened so much so that he can no longer trust anyone, especially his boss at the Foreign Office, Pellegrin (Bill Nighy) who casts a shifty air regarding the whole situation.
As the film resumes in the present, Justin, now sobered to the reality previously obscured from him, sets off to complete his late wife’s work. Where he once busied himself endlessly toiling in his garden while Tessa was away on mysterious rendez-vous, Justin now immerses himself in sifting incessantly through what she left behind, desperate to uncover why she had to die on that desolate road.
There's a world where I can go and tell my secrets to, in my room...
The narrative is thick with invention and all the characters do an excellent job of staying just above suspicion, without completely relieving themselves of the guilt. As a result, we’re just as paranoid as Justin. But what’s really impressive is the humanity beneath it all. The Constant Gardener could have easily sputtered along as a by-the-numbers thriller, but instead it takes time to examine its more tender moments.
Yes, the film is angry and bitter in its view of the world and the corporate influences on it, but that anger doesn’t simply lash out blindly at its villains. Instead it roots itself in a desire for change, and contains limitless compassion for its victims (not merely the stars of the film, but those underprivileged masses that seem irrelevant in the eyes of corporate greed). Maybe the final moments of the film are a bit preachy, but it’s precisely that zeal that makes it work so well.
The Constant Gardener may not be quite the revelation that City of God was, but it shows that Meirelles’ talents extend well beyond his debut. If nothing else, it’s the one thriller this year truly confident of its subject matter, and unafraid to explore the darker aspects of international politics.