The Constant Gardener
A not-quite-great John Le Carré adaptation, but one that confirms that filmmaker’s have been consistently much more astutely than they did in previous decades (in the last decade or so we have seen this, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Tailor of Panama).
Director Fernando Meirelles boarded this project after his reputation-making (internationally at least) City of God. It further cemented his status as a thoughtful, intelligent filmmaker tackling big themes with skill and insight. Since then, he’s been tarnished by falling short of his aspirations in Blindness and 360. But what he brings to the genteel, reserved world of Le Carré is immediacy and verve. Meirelles’ verité style, adopting handheld camera for the most part, clashes productively with the icy callousness of corporate decision-making. It’s only in the final reveal that one is left with a slight sense of cop-out, that the apparent triumph (on whatever level) isn’t true to the desperation of world it depicts.
Perhaps such cynicism should be tempered by the knowledge that Le Carré based his story on an actual case in Nigeria, in which Pfizer trialed a drug that left children disabled or dead. But the story here presents an impenetrable blockade of collusion and threat from corporate and government interests, one that suggests no respite. In his novel, the author commented that the fiction he presented was as “tame as a holiday postcard” in comparison to reality.
Unlike the same year’s The Interpreter, Meirelles is happy to set his narrative within an actual country. Ralph Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a British diplomat in Kenya, whose wife and her doctor friend are investigating the covert testing of a TB drug. When Tessa (Rachel Weisz), and then her friend, turn up murdered, Justin pursues his own inquires. As he uncovers evidence of corruption at every juncture his own life comes under threat.
Jeffrey Caine’s screenplay eases the thriller aspects in slowly, with the first half of the film more resonantly concerned with Jeffrey’s reflection on his relationship with Tessa. Fiennes essays the slightly silly, slightly embarrassing and emotionally reserved posh British chap immaculately, such that it’s quite clear that this will be another of Le Carré’s unlikely protagonists.
Our understanding of Tessa who, as subjectively depicted by Justin, appears to be one of those impassioned people whose cause is justification for trampling on her personal relationships, is a masterful lesson in shifting perspectives. We’re onto her from the off, a young activist taking up with someone who represents everything she apparently loathes. A ticket to her furthering her mission, it seems. And then there’s the affair everyone knows she’s having. And her prostituting herself with the British High Commissioner (Danny Huston). So, when this is all flipped on its head, we the audience feel as guilty as Justin. Well, not quite, as Justin being told the truth can never have quite the same impact for the audience as his earlier remembrances. But it’s an effective storytelling device, and both Fiennes and Weisz put considerable emotional heft into their parts (Weisz was actually pregnant during filming, hence the believable “prosthetics” in her nude scenes).
The supporting cast includes strong work from Huston, but also Bill Nighy as a slippery superior to Justin, Donald Sumpter, Archie Panjabi and Pete Postlethwaite. Mereilles’ regular cinematographer Cesar Charlone gives the film a saturated, arid intensity; the use of handheld camera, and employment of devices such as surveillance footage, adds a growing unease to Jeffrey’s journey of discovery.
It’s worth contrasting Gardener with The Interpreter again for a moment. Both take Africa as their starting point, but the latter film constructs a fantasy in a make-believe country where the intervention of the UN can set all things to rights. The President in that film is set out as an individual who once espoused freedom and justice but became the tyrannical despot he so loathed. This, however, is set out in an all too obvious moment of speechifying by one of the main characters.
There is a thematically similar moment in Gardener, but it sets its sights much lower and therefore hits its target more accurately. Justin confronts Huston’s character on his involvement in the conspiracy and his deference to the British government’s corporate masters (pharmaceutical appeasing means jobs), noting that he has become everything he stood against. It’s a believable moment, where we see how one’s erosion of standards and increase in relative justifications can lead to a complete loss of moral compass. In direct contrast to The Interpreter, Gardener is also willing to take a swipe at the UN as an embodiment of global justice and salvation; it’s just another corporate body like any other.
However, what really raises the film is its emotional content. The injustice that Justin feels he has done to Tessa through doubting her drives him to his fate. One that he is at peace with. He is not so much consumed with her broader political and humanitarian quest, but he assumes its colours in order to right this perceived wrong. A charge could be made that The Constant Gardener falls prey to the “white westerner telling the African’s story” (Blood Diamond is a particularly grinding example of this), and it’s a fair point. Although, perhaps, the film needs to establish itself from Justin’s perspective in order to recognise his own and, by extension our, complicity in the whole process of exploitation and profit.
So the final, literal, sermon comes across as an unwelcome cheap shot across the bows. It’s so unsubtle that Mereilles must have been aware of the connotations of the scene, but the effect is pat and diminishing of the film’s overall impact. Far better to have left the audience aware of the likely outcome than to embellish the tale with a grandstanding flourish. It was probably seen as a necessary balance to what might otherwise be seen as a downer ending, but the film deserved something with a bit more of Justin’s reserve, as opposed to Teresa’s bombast.