Constant Gardener, The (2005): Brazilian Fernando Meirelles (City of God) Romantic Thriller

The best movie of the summer, “The Constant Gardener” is a rarity of rarity: An intelligent movie about intelligent characters for intelligent viewers.

Just when you though the summer season was all about comic strips (“Batman Begins,” “Fantastic Four”), bad actioners (“The Island,” Stealth”), and children flicks (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), comes along a smart, gripping and thoughtful film that takes politics more seriously than most American films.

Combining thrilling adventure, social relevance, and emotional love story, “Constant Gardener” is also rare in another respect. It’s an international production that benefits (rather than suffers) from the collaboration among its divergent participants, headed by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, who makes an impressive English-speaking debut after his Oscar-nominated crime drama, “City of God.”

The international team includes producer Simon Channing Williams (Oscar nominee for “Secrets & Lies”), director of photography C’sar Charlone (Oscar nominee for “City of God”), editor Claire Simpson (Oscar winner for “Platoon”), and production designer Mark Tildesley (“28 Days Later”). The movie benefits immensely from on location shooting in Berlin, London, and Nairobi and numerous other parts of Kenya.

With a few exceptions, most screen adaptations of John Le Carre have not been successful. You would have to go back to Martin Ritt’s 1965 “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” with Richard Burton, for a decent translation of Le Carre’s complex work to the big screen. In this respect, too, “Constant Gardener” is one of the best and most complex films to be based on this novelist’s admittedly tough work for Hollywood movies. (See Film Comment).

Comparisons with other romantic political thrillers set in foreign countries, such as “The Year of Living Dangerously,” “Beyond Rangoon,” and most recently, “The Quiet American,” also point to the excellence of Mereilles’ African-set thriller.

At the center of this superbly crafted romantic thriller, adapted by Jeffrey Caine from the 2001 novel by John Le Carr, is one man’s emotional and global journey to uncover the truth behind a personal loss and a worldwide conspiracy. What’s impressive about the film is how it interweaves the personal and political domains to the point where they become inseparable. That the movie takes on urgent social problems, such as AIDS and other transmittable diseases in Africa, and the ruthlessly capitalistic politics of pharmaceutical business, are major added benefits.

The only reservation I have about Mereilles’ film is its excessive flourishes of style, which, intriguing as they are to the eyes, are often distracting in their flamboyance, calling too much attention to themselves.

Defying chronology, the story begins with a farewell scene at the airport, when
Tessa Abbott Quayle (Rachel Weisz) leaves her husband Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) for a presumably short trip to Africa. Not to worry about any confusion. This scene will be repeated and placed where it belongs in the narrative.

Shortly after, in a remote area of Northern Kenya, the region’s most dedicated activist, the passionate Tessa is found brutally murdered, and her traveling companion, a local doctor, appears to have fled the scene. Tessa’s character is drawn from a real life figure. Le Carre dedicated The Constant Gardener to a passionate activist and charity worker named Yvette Pierpaoli, whom he described in the end credits as a woman who had “lived and died giving a damn.”

The evidence points to a crime of passion. Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston), Sir Bernard Pellegrin (Bill Nighy), and other members of the British High Commission assume that Tessa’s widower, their mild-mannered colleague Justin will leave the matter to their discretion. But they could not be more wrong.

In fact, the career diplomat’s equilibrium is exploded by the loss of the woman he was deeply devoted to. Justin and Tessa were opposites, whose attraction sustained a marriage, the memories of which have now spurred Justin to take decisive action for the first time in his life and diplomatic career.

Haunted by remorse and jarred by rumors of his wife’s infidelity, Justin plunges headlong into a dangerous odyssey, determined to clear his wife’s name and “finish what she started.” Embarks on a crash course about the pharmaceutical industry, whose crimes Tessa was on the verge of uncovering, Justin journeys across two continents in search of the truth. His eyes are gradually opened to a vast conspiracy at once deadly and commonplace, one that has claimed innocent lives and puts his own life at risk.

We have seen dissections of marriages, done backward and forward. But the marriage at the center of this movie is original and with a touch of existentialism, for it tells the story of a quiet man who marries a younger woman, but it’s only after her death that he truly falls in love with her.

For a while, the movie’s dual-levels are kept separately. On the one hand, it unfolds as a political thriller about corporate wrongdoing, malfeasance and manipulation. On the other, it’s a deeply affecting anatomy of Justin’s and Tessa’s relationship, which is continuously being rediscovered and reassessed as the journey goes along. Elements of the love story and the political thriller element are interlocked; one doesn’t happen without the other. Justin’s love for Tessa motivates him to go on a journey of discovery, where he reaches a new level of self-knowledge and also discovers a huge political scandal.

In due course, Justin becomes a private eye investigating not one but two equally intriguing mysteries. His journey traces what Tessa was investigating in Africa and why she was murdered, but he’s also looking for clues to explain their relationship. It’s a wonderful part for Fiennes, one of his best, since the part calls for a radical transformation of personality and values. Justin goes all the way from being a reticent nice guy to a political activist, after being forced to confront some tough truths about the world of big business drugs. While Justin is not exactly an everyman, he is not heroic either, but he becomes extraordinary at the end of his odyssey.

At first glance, Justin appears very passive, a civilized British diplomat who lives by a code. He doesn’t fully know what Tessa does. Occasionally, he would like to interfere, but he doesn’t, not because he’s weak but because he has an agreement with her, and he lives by that code as well.

Despite their opposing personalities, it becomes clear why a passionate and opinionated woman like Tessa would be interested in Justin. She needs an anchor and Justin keeps her sane; he’s so controlled, and she’s so passionate. Here is a marriage based on the sociological theory of opposites attract. The credibly cast Fiennes and Weisz make us believe totally in the passion and the tenderness of the romantic relationship.

Justin’s only other passion is for his garden, which is a perfect hobby for him. There’s an internal quietude about gardeners, an activity that calls for sensitivity to watching something grow, flourish, and bloom. A politically uncommitted man, Justin discovers only after Tessa’s death the true nature of the woman he loved. Thereafter, he devotes himself completely to continuing her work, growing closer to her than he was during her lifetime.

The film retains the book’s non-linear approach, using flashbacks. This strategy helps us to engage emotionally with Tessa and Justin. Scripter Caine has done a good balancing act of providing a sufficiently intriguing forward thrust to the narrative without giving away too much of the plot too soon, and without sacrificing either the personal story of Justin’s growth to understanding, or the underlying political contents.

In recent years, the business practices of some pharmaceutical manufacturers have come under increasing scrutiny, with wider coverage in the media and stronger pressure from numerous consumer watchdogs and interest groups. Le Carr’s novel and now movie should contribute to greater awareness among the general public of the industry’s potential to do harm as well as good.

On one level, like “Norma Rae,” “Silkwood,” and “Erin Brocovich,” this is a David and Goliath saga, with ordinary people taking on the great big corporations. In size and profits, the pharmaceuticals are second only to the oil business. They make huge amounts of money, yet people in developing countries can’t afford the drugs that could save their lives.

Le Carre’s novel had delineated a deeply corrupt government in Kenya, which led to the book’s originally being banned there. Even so, Kenyans brought in multiple copies from abroad, and circulating them among friends and neighbors. You don’t have to accept that all British diplomats are corrupt and decadent, and you don’t have to accept that particular pharmaceutical companies in Kenya are the ones the author had in mind.

Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston), as the British High Commission’s Head of Chancery, makes modern diplomacy seem like a big business that encourages commercial ventures. The problems Le Carr describes are potential as well as actual. Kenya is not the only country where he could have set the story, and it could have been another government, and it could have been another industry. However, Kenya makes for a good, relevant setting for a story about the risks and temptations of exploitation between the rich and powerful and the poor and vulnerable in the Third World.

Le Carr wrote a story about a developing country and big business from the point of view of Justin, a First World person. Indeed, the book told its story through British eyes, embedded in a British post-imperial subculture. Not surprisingly, Mereilles de-emphasizes these elements, while giving the African elements more prominence, but without tipping the story out of balance. Mereilles puts himself in the other position, of Africa, telling the story through Kenyan eyes. Coming from the Third World himselfBrazilhe might have identified more with the Kenyans than with the British.

Meirelles has successfully visualized a powerful story from a part of the world most people seldom get to seeat least not in such detail. He and his crew take full advantage of the visual and storytelling opportunities of shooting in Nairobi and other parts of Kenya. Mereilles incorporates authentic African footage, with Kenya’s distinct colors and faces, turning Africa into a keystone for the film. Indeed, his “Third World” perspective regards Kenya as tale’s third principal character.

Visually, he and long-time collaborator, director of photography C’sar Charlone. Try to be as faithful as they can, using real locations and natural light; if the mortuary, where Justin is asked to identify Tessa’s body is lit with fluorescents, they go fluorescent lighting. Clearly, locations were chosen for their suitability rather than beauty.

“Constant Gardener” is not a typical Hollywood film with backlighting or key lighting to make its actors look glamorous. The film was made with a small crew filming on location, allowing for things to be more organic and spontaneous, like reportage, or guerrilla filmmaking. Kenya’s sights, sounds, and smells are more than just a backdrop. The landscape has a particular spirit and you can’t just try to mimic that somewhere else.

The film deals with two different realities and two different worlds. There’s Justin’s old world, working for a rigid bureaucracy like the British High Commission. But as he finds out more about Tessa, she becomes his door into a new world, the real Africa that he had been unable or unwilling to see. Justin’s world (England) is depicted in cool greens, while Tessa’s world (Africa) is in warm reds.

You don’t have to be a political animal to enjoy the film. “Constant Gardener” is not likely to change the conduct of international pharmaceutical companies, but it might draw greater public attention to certain widespread practices of Big Pharma. I highly recommend that you see “Constant Gardener,” a movie in which the personal love story is wedded to a timely political theme–how the Western world continues to abuse the African continent as a laboratory, set within a suspenseful structure.