The Constant Gardener
Ralph Fiennes is Justin Quayle, the gardener of the title, and a typical John Le Carré semi-hero: a British diplomat so impeccably schooled he fancies good manners are synonymous with virtue. Yet there is hope for Justin. ‘Learn me’, commands Tessa (Rachel Weisz), a radical free spirit with whom he falls in love. Tessa cannot let injustice lie. There is much to keep her busy when she accompanies her husband to Kenya… but is her sudden death a crime of passion or political assassination?
Easy to see what attracted City of God director Fernando Mereilles to this hard-hitting, politically relevent material, but for all his film's estimable qualities – finely nuanced performances, a probing ethical schema, and the vivid sense of place – and despite the rave reviews it seems to be generating on both sides of the Atlantic, The Constant Gardener still feels like a good novel transplanted to the screen. The roots don't quite take.
Mereilles and sceenwriter Jeffrey Caine mirror the book’s elegant flashback structure, counterpointing Justin and Tessa's courtship and marriage with the aftermath of her death, and it's just about enough to make the story hold on an emotional level. Ralph Fiennes is very good at playing repressed Brits opening up to passionate women (The English Patient; The End of the Affair). He and Weisz make the most of their brief, intimate scenes. But her role feels more forced, in part because crucial life experiences (the loss of a child for example) are compressed into just a couple of minutes’ screen time.
As the plot thickens in the second half, the conspiracy whisks us on such a breathless whirligig ride – to London, the Netherlands, and northern Kenya, each sequence replete with intrigue and suspense – you begin to wonder if there wasn't a superior mini-series in here somewhere.
The close coterie of modern colonials – diplomats, businessmen and spies – is persuasive enough (Danny Huston, Gerald McSorley and Bill Nighy in a more serious role than usual) but by the time we get Pete Postlethwaite as an evangelical missionary out in the desert somewhere the movie’s credibility is on very thin ground. And that’s unfortunate when it’s dealing with such pressing (real) life and death issues as drug testing in the third world. By going the thriller route, and opting to end on a note of operatic romantic nihilism, the film's recasting of pharmaceutical companies as neo-colonial heavies can't help but seem glib. Hitchcock used to talk about the motor for thrillers being a McGuffin. In his anecdote one man asks another what he has under his arm. ‘A McGuffin,’ he replies. ‘It’s for shooting lions in the Scottish highlands.’
‘But there are no lions in the Scottish highlands,’ complains his perplexed companion.
‘Then that’s no McGuffin,’ he declares.
The point is this: it doesn’t matter what the McGuffin is, that’s just a device for getting the job done. The audience don’t care about the McGuffin, they care about the characters.
I’m afraid that’s the case here too. Despite everyone’s best intentions, and despite cinematographer Cesar Charlone’s impassioned response to the African locales, The Constant Gardener is a tragic love story; it reduces the plight of Africa’s much abused poor to the status of a McGuffin. If you are really concerned about how globalization is impacting the world’s poor, don’t miss the devastating recent documentary Darwin's Nightmare.