The Constant Gardener

  • Fernando Meirelles
  • 2005

Bird flu has been dominating the headlines recently with worries over there being enough vaccines to protect the world from its potentially killer effects. How apt, then, that The Constant Gardener does not just bring up the question of pharmaceutical testing, but suggests that governments and global drug companies could conspire over medicine just to make money on the stock market and in your local chemist.

The Constant Gardener is based on a John le Carre novel in which Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), an English diplomat in Kenya, is told his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) has been found dead. Amid rumours she was possibly having an affair with her close Kenyan friend, Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), Justin is urged to leave the matter to the British High Commission. However, finding his house ransacked and a box of Tessa’s personal letters points him on the trail of a conspiracy to hide the truth.

Meirelles has retained City of God’s visual flair, but this time puts it to use on a less frenetic film.

The Constant Gardener opens with Justin saying goodbye to Tessa and Arnold as they board a plane, cuts to an unidentified upturned vehicle, then to Justin being informed of the death of his wife before the narrative enters a flashback to the first meeting between Tessa and Justin. This elliptical start to the film is indicative of the style of City of God (2002) director Fernando Meirelles. The film flits between present and flashback, sometimes even mixing them together in the same scene, but never loses its appeal of providing the right information in the right order for best effect. Together with some stunning cinematography capturing the beauty of Kenya, Meirelles has retained City of God’s visual flair, but this time puts it to use on a less frenetic film. Fortunately when the action stops, the smart script kicks in to add a very human dimension to the characters, essential to the story.

Ralph Fiennes plays the diplomat, Justin Quayle, with the uneasy yet reserved quality of a man concerned by his wife’s insistence that they should leave each other to their work in the office, but determined to keep their agreement. It is the questioning of this agreement that provokes an introspective of his relationship with Tessa and whether it was just to hide an affair, or part of something more sinister. As Quayle delves deeper, Fiennes presents him as becoming obsessed in his search of the truth and mirroring Tessa’s commitment to her cause.

there are more pertinent questions than simply who was fighting for what cause

Weisz is given only key scenes in which to shine, and does so with some ambivalence about her relationship with Arnold, but becomes a little too worthy in her position as the moral centre of the movie. If anything, it is obvious who the narrative favours from the outset and this makes it relatively easy to guess where the film is heading. However, there are more pertinent questions than simply who was fighting for what cause.

The suggestions of bogus pharmaceutical testing in African countries, and governments playing on the fact that those in poverty rely on them for guidance and health, undermines the faith put in medicine and the companies producing it. Granted, these are fictional events; none of it is set up as an expose of international politics or drug companies. However, the issues of equality and fairness in global trade and the treatment of those in developing countries are never far from the minds of worldwide human rights campaigners so why should they not be represented on screen and in the minds of cinemagoers? The fact that The Constant Gardener so successfully marries these complex issues with an absorbing romantic story wracked full of sadness and remorse can only be a good thing. Meirelles has brought his streetsmart visuals and hip storytelling to a more serious level, but lost none of his flair for capturing a compelling and rich tale.

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