November 2022

The Constant Gardener (2005)

DIRECTOR: Fernando Meirelles


Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite, Hubert Koundé, Gerard McSorley, Richard McCabe


John le Carre’s densely plotted thrillers, blending the usual cloak-and-dagger international intrigue with labrynthine plots which unravel bits and pieces at a time, have a reputation for being difficult to adapt to the screen with their essence and fundamental story and message intact. But Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles and screenwriter Jeffrey Caine have condensed the essence of le Carre’s novel into a slow-burn, unconventional thriller which combines the saga of a man’s search for truth with a simmering indictment of government and business corruption in Africa.

The central character is Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a soft-spoken British diplomat stationed in Kenya who almost immediately learns that his young wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) has been killed while traveling through remote territory. The story is that she was murdered by bandits, or perhaps even Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), the black doctor with whom she seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time and with whom Justin suspected her of having an affair. Justin’s superiors (Danny Huston, Bill Nighy) hold to the official line and discourage him from looking any further into the matter. But Tessa had a reputation as an outspoken activist, and when Justin begins to probe into what happened, he encounters an ever-increasing web of evidence that there is far more to the events surrounding his wife’s death than meets the eye. With each new revelation, the mild-mannered Justin becomes more determined to uncover the truth. His quest unearths government corruption and unsafe drug testing on African villagers, and through his mission he also learns more about his wife after her death than he knew while she was alive. As a result, The Constant Gardener works on different levels as a scathing exposé of the pharmaceutical industry, and as an unconventional love story in which the relationship grows and deepens after one of them is dead.

Viewers expecting an adrenaline-pumping thriller will be disappointed. The Constant Gardener is slow and talky, involving us in Justin’s gradual unraveling of the truth with scattered clues and revealing conversations instead of car chases and shootouts, both of which are virtually nonexistent. Meirelles maintains a low-burn tension throughout, but it seldom kicks into high gear. Gardener balances its focus between its agenda and the personal relationship between Justin and Tessa, but its approach suits the former more than the latter. We can understand and even sympathize with Justin’s character change and his increasing grasp of the full picture of who his wife was and what she was involved in, but between its detached, docu-drama style and Ralph Fiennes’ usual cool reserve, the characters always remain somewhat at a distance. We are observing their lives more than becoming involved in them. The closest we come to forming an emotional attachment to them is in the flashbacks of Justin and Tessa, where there is a playful companionability between them.

That said, there are things to admire about The Constant Gardener (admire might be a better word than like). I was drawn in by the way we start out with fragments of the whole picture and each scene, each fleshback, fleshes it out a little, like peeling back the layers of an onion. At times, in its subdued way, the movie provokes moral outrage, which means it’s achieving the most important part of what it set out to do. It doesn’t gloss things over and pretend that one man can triumph over a corrupt system. It never tries to be anything vaguely resembling a feel good movie (although it can put us in the mood for one). And lastly, it accomplished the most crucial goal of any movie, no matter the genre: from beginning to end I was engaged in what was going on and interested to find out what was going to happen next.

The Constant Gardener is also well-acted. Ralph Fiennes gives a solid turn as Justin, a gentle soul more used to talking than taking decisive action, and brings conviction to his transformation into a dogged amateur investigator, as well as when his changing comprehension of his relationship with his late wife loosens his initially tight lid on his grief. Like his indelible portrayal of the Nazi Kommandant in Schindler’s List, Fiennes strictly avoids overacting a part that could have turned overwrought in the wrong hands. Like the film itself, he is low-key and subdued, but with a seething intensity just beneath the surface. And despite having her screentime limited almost exclusively to an extended string of flashbacks early in the film, Rachel Weisz is convincing as the catalyst for all that happens afterwards. She brings passion and energy to the part, and captures both Tessa’s outspoken righteousness and moral outrage, and a softer, more playful side in her scenes with Fiennes. It’s debatable whether Weisz’s performance is worthy of its Oscar win, but she’s perfect for her role. In the supporting cast, Danny Huston, one of the better actors around at playing moral weakness, and the underused Bill Nighy are solid as Justin’s slimy bosses, who plainly know more than they let on, and Pete Postlethwaite, who is making something of a career out of dubious, shifty-looking, thickly-accented characters, makes another such appearance as a field doctor doing refugee work to atone for past misdeeds. Gerard McSorley and Richard McCabe are of note in smaller roles.

It’s perhaps inevitable, given the subject matter and the film’s cynical attitude, that as engrossing as it may be in the moment, The Constant Gardener leaves the viewer feeling a little emotionally empty. Maybe it’s because of its detached style. Maybe the story is just too depressing. At the same time, it’s admirable that the film never cops out for a more upbeat ending than the material calls for. There is a love story here, but the most potent aspect is its scathing examination of what powerful corporations are all-too-often willing to do in the name of money and expediency, and its clear-eyed acknowledgment of the way they exist and function within a corrupt system which ensures that their criminal activities often go completely unpunished. The specific story told onscreen is fiction, but given the number of similar stories which have come out over the years, dismissing the events here as far-fetched or unrealistic is naive wishful thinking. I’m not sure if I can truly say I enjoyed The Constant Gardener– enjoyed seems an inappropriate word- but I can respect a film which dares to rely more on talk than action, and an ending which is not triumphant or uplifting, but likely all-too realistic.