The Constant Gardener Review

Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) hears that a body of a young woman has been found by the roadside in a remote part of the desert. What shocks him is that the dead woman may be his wife, who had been on a visit north of Nairobi investigating the trials of a new drug and that her badly-beaten body was found beside her overturned jeep and the decapitated body of her driver. Accompanied by his old friend, Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston), he identifies the body as that of his wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), a free spirited, thoughtful but often professionally reckless woman who arrived in Kenya to help in a more direct manner than can her husband, a low-level diplomat employed by the Foreign Office.

Sick with guilt, feeling that somehow he had allowed this to happen by allowing Tessa to travel with him, he remembers their meeting, their falling in love, their marriage after a short romance and her pregnancy, which ended with their son being stillborn. Justin remembers her wish to do something for those Kenyans living in the vast, sprawling slums in Nairobi, many of whom are HIV Positive, but he also remembers him telling her not to become too deeply involved in the lives of those living, that almost because of the sheer numbers involved, of the millions of desperately poor Africans, that she cannot help everyone.

But he also remembers that she had been warned both by the High Comission and by various shadowy members of Her Majesty's Government of the same, warnings that were less touched with compassion than Justin's own. In spite of the official story, that Tessa was murdered by Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde) following an argument between them, after which he disappeared into the bush, Justin is unconvinced and sets out to find the truth behind the death of his wife, finding a steely determination within himself that matches that of Tessa, who, as he reminds himself by constantly touching the picture of her that he keeps in his wallet, he misses terribly.

What may put potential viewers off The Constant Gardener is John le Carré's name in the credits, believing this to be a Cold War thriller lost in a world similar to Smiley's People, The Russia House and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. And yet the bleak England of George Smiley, as memorably played by Sir Alec Guinness, couldn't be further from the dry, dusty Kenya in which Justin Quayle lives, where the heat ripples off the road and where children, dressed impeccably in their school uniforms, step over open sewers, wild animals and the recently deceased in the slums that sit uncomfortably beside an exclusive golf club, one a dirty shade somewhere between orange and brown, the other a lush green.

Except that it's no surprise that The Constant Gardener should have come from the pen of le Carré for who else understands the wiles of British espionage as well as he. Who else could have, with equal insight, concluded that British diplomats and spies would not have quietly walked off into a life of gardening, bell ringing and other, similarly pastoral pursuits when the Cold War came to an end but le Carré. His masterstroke in recent years has been to realise that those in the employ of Her Majesty's Government have garnered a particular set of skills that would be most welcome in certain markets and regions that might otherwise be considered difficult. Hence the relocating of spooks from what was the Eastern Bloc, almost all of which has either been welcomed into the bosom of the European Union or soon will be, to such countries as Nigeria, Venezeula and Kenya, where British corporate interests are just as much at stake as once was national security. The Constant Gardener has British interests being tested by a big pharmaceutical, KDH - changed from KVH in the novel - who have taken ownership of a factory in an economic blackspot in Wales, creating some 1500 jobs. When these interests demand support in their testing of a treatment for TB, it begins a series of events that, by bad luck more than anything else, ends with the death of Tessa Quayle beside Lake Turkana.

Yet, The Constant Gardener, despite it being set in the world of pharmaceuticals isn't, to this viewer, exclusive to that particular industry, even when le Carré says, as he does in the Author's Note that closes the novel, that, "by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard." Instead, as Ham implies in his speech in the film's dying minutes, The Constant Gardener is about complicity, asking how willing we are to see the poorer parts of the world fucked in order that we feel safe, that we pay less for our goods and that the food and drugs we consume are as harmless as they are.

Where le Carré, and Meirelles, posts his action in the pharmaceutical industry in Kenya, The Constant Gardener could so easily have been set within the international arms trade, which has left vast tracts of land unusable with unexploded mines and cluster bombs or in Nigeria, Brazil and the Middle and Far East, where the oil companies have left the local population in slums as they've built compounds with which to house their workers with the protection of armed guards. In that latter case, such a film would also have had to contend with the pipelines that have leaked crude oil into the rivers that provide drinking water as well as the financing of the national army, which encourages them to be a touch more trigger-happy when dealing with environmental protestors or just local kids who get a little carried away when demanding that something be done about the housing projects that have failed to be delivered.

In that sense The Constant Gardener isn't a particularly easy watch, nor read for those who've bought the novel. After all, are we complicit in the deaths of the fictional Justin and Tessa Quayle by our demands to have medicines tested on humans before they reach market. Equally, are we complicit in the real-life deaths of those on whom le Carré based this story, on those who die from drinking water contaminated by oil or on those who are blown apart as they step on a mine sold by a British arms company. It ought to make us angry - indeed le Carré's writing is as furious as it has ever been - but he knows that here in the west, Africa is a long way away and that any dissenting voices will eventually be left well alone, like the lone bible-thumper warning us to repent or, like Tessa, standing in a room that's quickly deserted as she asks how many Iraqis have to die to secure a cheap source of oil. Truth is, I don't think The Constant Gardener will have much impact other than making us feel more guilty and that were it a choice between not testing a new drug on humans or on testing it on the terminally ill in Africa, I feel that despite what we might tell pollsters, in our heart we know that the thought of HIV-positive Kenyans will not be troubling us when our children, parents or, indeed, ourselves, are desperately in need of medication. I dare say that there are many who would argue that we ought to test such drugs on the terminally ill not only in Africa but also in the west - they are, after all, going to die regardless - and le Carré knows this, knows that regardless of the hubbub in the press that ends his novel, Three Bees or their equivalent will continue their testing because Kenya remains an awfully long way away and that, as Justin reminds Tessa, you can't help everyone.

This, though, is not a review of the novel and The Constant Gardener works wonderfully as a film, amongst the best adaptations of le Carré's novels with an ebb and flow to the story, to the love affair between Tessa and Justin and to the differing climates of Africa and the UK that allows the viewer to catch their breath between the set pieces whilst still being able to appreciate the murky politics on show. In the Quayle's home in Nairobi, the golf club and the evening parties organised by the High Commission, the cinematography by César Charlone, brought over from Fernando Meirelles' City Of God, is quiet, still and barely moving but in the slums in the city, there's an edginess to the film that's made more pronounced by the use of handheld cameras that catch their misery and the reek of death that's never far away. Again, early in the film, Justin, who is then only an ineffectual civil servant, is lost in the frame, a small figure in a great big landscape, regardless of whether he's in Africa or at a lunch hosted by Sir Bernard Pellegrin (Bill Nighy) in his Whitehall club during which Justin disappears behind statues, into the shadows of the dining room or beneath the diplomatic flub of Sir Bernard's verbal nods and winks. As Justin learns more, Ralph Fiennes' gets ever closer to the screen until, at its end, the camera only picks out his hands, his eyes or, when he's speaking aloud to the ghost of Tessa, his mouth.

And it's these scenes that come back time and again, even days after seeing the film. Fiennes, who's often cast as a dashing rake whom, The English Patient excepted, pain passes by, portrays the agony of a man who feels that he simply didn't do enough for his wife when she was alive and that, all too late, he learns that her secrecy regarding her work came from a need to protect him, born out of love and not a mistrust of him. Even when, on an UN plane, he learns who it was who informed his wife's killers of her whereabouts, he realises there is little that he can do. There simply isn't enough of Tessa left in him to do everything on his own. It's a brave, literate and adult thriller that ends with Justin Quayle releasing the magazine from the pistol that he's holding but so it does and the noise of it hitting the ground is one of the last things we hear.


Initially, at least, you might be convinced that The Constant Gardener has arrived on DVD with a soft, smeared picture that is as lifeless as the grey sky over London, where, after a brief time in Kenya, the action soon shifts. But the longer the film runs, the sharper and more detailed the picture becomes until, in the heat of the Kenyan desert, it's beautifully crisp with the viewer able to discern even the smallest of human shapes against the shimmering horizon.

The soundtrack, though often talky and using only the rear speakers for ambient effects, does come alive in those scenes where le Carré's book has, to use the language of the current British government, been sexed up. Donahue and Justin have, for example, their final meeting in the book at Ghita's apartment but the film has one chasing the other along a deserted stretch of road in a part of the country where cars are frequently shot at by bandits. In those sections of the film, the rear speakers come alive with gunshots, sound effects and the revving of car engines but these are exceptions. Typically, it is a quiet film but the DVD handles it well with very little background noise or distortion. Finally, The Constant Gardener is subtitled in English, French and Spanish.


Extended Scene - Play In Kibera (9m42s): As presented in the film, the play that Tessa Quayle watches in Kibera - a story about living with HIV - is skipped over so quickly that it just makes sense. Here, though, the full play is included, still set within the film, but now it actually builds from someone coughing at work and showing early signs of feeling unwell to their losing their job, being excluded from their family and their leaving home, still watched by a heavily pregnant Tessa.

Embracing Africa - Filming In Kenya (9m29s): The Constant Gardener looks and feels authentic and this has much to do with director Fernando Meirelles setting much of his film in Kenya rather than South Africa, which, though it has a better infrastructure for film production, would have done a disservice to the attention to detail that was present in le Carré's novel. This short feature contains interviews with the cast and crew, all of whom offer their thoughts on the film being produced in Kenya, which offered stunning desert locations as well as Kibera, a slum within Nairobi that is home to 700,000 people, all of whom live in extreme poverty.

John le Carré - From Page To Screen (8m08s): le Carré opens this feature from his home in Cornwall and, typically for a writer who's had his work adapted for the screen a number of times, he takes a somewhat detached approach to the making of The Constant Gardener. Throughout this short feature, he's an engaging presence, deflating the air of importance that surrounds the production of a film with an occasional comment on how easy he found his role in the process, how the crew, with their establishment of a charity and of the good work they did in Kibera, avoided any ill feeling from the local population and how pleased he is with the finished film, declaring that he doesn't, "know of a better translation from novel to film." Best of all, though, is the interview with Sir Edward Clay, the Former British High Commissioner in Kenya, who, given the portrayal of the High Commission in the film and in the novel, could have been less than cooperative but is praised by all concerned for the level of assistance that he offered.

Anatomy Of A Global Thriller (11m35s): Subtitled Behind The Scenes Of The Constant Gardener, this isn't a particularly extensive making-of and appears to be the sort of feature compiled for an EPK (Electronic Press Kit) but it functions well enough as an introduction both to the film and to the cast and crew. le Carré is, once again, the most enjoyable presence in the feature as he uses his interview to summarise his story and to briefly outline his characters and how it is the love affair between Justin and Tessa, despite their differences, that brings out the best in them both.

All of these features are subtitled in English, French and Spanish.


Whilst The Constant Gardener does tend to dwell on the conspiratorial dealings of government, the security services and big business, it is, like Edge Of Darkness, given a heart by having love, and not revenge, as its heart. Inasmuch as Troy Kennedy Martin's nuclear thriller was given structure by Ronald Craven's investigation into the murder of his daughter Emma, out of which came his discovery of the activities at Northmoor, so too is Justin Quayle's discovery of the corruption within the High Commission fuelled by his desire to find out what happened to his wife, determined to uncover the truth when the official version of events fails to convince.

Like Edge Of Darkness, it's often wonderful, impassioned filmmaking that barely hides its fury underneath the facade of ordered government, the language of career diplomats and politicians and the slow uncovering of secrets. It's one of the very best le Carré novels and it's a great adaptation, only let down on DVD by the shortage of bonus material.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:38:58

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