The Constant Gardener Review
Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) takes the news of his wife's murder calmly and quietly. He thanks the colleague who broke the news and acknowledges that it must have been a very hard thing to do. Justin's a British civil servant of the old school - well-educated, well-mannered and brought up not to show his feelings in public. Inside, he's distraught. His wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) meant everything to him, even though on the surface they had little in common. Justin works for the British Foreign Office. Posted to the consulate in Kenya, he looks after Her Majesty's interests in Africa. Tessa was a fiercely left-wing political activist who specialised in fighting Western exploitation of the Third World. Some of Justin's colleagues found this amusing, others did not.
At first the murder looks like a crime of passion. Tessa was travelling with a male colleague with whom she was very close and who subsequently disappeared. However, information comes to light which suggests other suspects. Tessa was investigating a British pharmaceutical company which organised drug trials in Kenyan hospitals, trials which may have caused several deaths. Justin learns his wife had been warned repeatedly to back off, not only by the company but by government officials in his own department.
There's a touching human drama at the heart of The Constant Gardener, the story of a man's growing love for a dead wife he didn't really know, but this emotional core is buried beneath a conspiracy thriller that's derivative and unconvincing. The early part of the film is the best. The flashbacks to Justin and Tessa's time together reveal an interesting relationship between two well-drawn people who I wanted to get to know better. The most memorable scene in the film is their first meeting. After Justin's given a stuffy speech (at the Tate Modern judging by the view!), Tessa stands up and hectors him about Iraq. The crowd shouts her down but Justin stays to talk to her and he's moved by her passion. We see the relationship mostly through Justin's eyes and it's clear what he loves about Tessa. I wish the film had also explored what he meant to her but too much needs to be kept from us for the benefit of the story.
At the movie progresses, the flashbacks come to an end, Weisz all but disappears and the conspiracy plot takes over. It's a poorly constructed mystery depending on stock elements like characters writing incriminating memos and others spilling their guts for no believable reason. There are sinister thugs who know how to find the hero when it's convenient to the script and allow him to run free when it isn't. The plot even resurrects that useful old standby, The Man Who Knows Everything - a key player who has disappeared but once tracked down will tell all. Credibility is in short supply. The motive for the British officials getting in bed with the villains is ludicrous - as if such a minor benefit could justify them risking a scandal. By the time Justin is being chased around the Sudan by hostile tribesmen - who have nothing to do with anything else - the movie has gone completely off the rails.
As an adaptation of a John le Carré novel, The Constant Gardener is a disappointment coming after John Boorman's splendid film of The Tailor Of Panama. Boorman wisely concentrated on the characters and left the political stance - a condemnation of US foreign policy in Latin America - as subtext till the final reel. Director Fernando Meirelles (City Of God) and screenwriter Jeffrey Caine (Goldeneye) emphasise The Constant Gardener's poltical message right from the beginning and it eclipses everything else.
Not that there's anything wrong with good, old fashioned political tub-thumping but The Constant Gardener's point that big corporations can be greedy and callous is hardly breaking news, especially to moviegoers. Corporate misdeeds may be a recent discovery to some sections of the media but Hollywood has been demonising big business for decades, long before Michael Moore and Naomi Klein got in on the act. Unscrupulous companies have provided the villains for all kinds of pictures, from true-life social dramas (Silkwood, Erin Brockovich) to sci-fi action movies (Robocop, Aliens). If the conspiracy responsible for Tessa's death sounds familiar, it might be because it's nearly identical to the one behind Harrison Ford's wife's murder in The Fugitive.
We're supposed to be outraged by what happens in The Constant Gardener but this is fiction and it's difficult to get outraged about fiction, especially when it isn't very original. John le Carré has claimed (in the novel's notes) that his research on pharmaceutical companies in Africa turned up true stories which made his book's plot look tame. That begs the question, if the point is to expose what corporations are doing in countries like Kenya, why didn't he - and the filmmakers - tell one of those stories instead?
Last updated: 01/07/2018 16:45:49