by Mel Valentin
On the surface, "The Constant Gardener," based on a bestselling John Le Carré novel and directed by Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles ("City of God"), is a political thriller that takes its themes, context, and subtext from the complex issues and controversial actions surrounding “Big Pharma,” multinational, pharmaceutical companies driven, like all corporations, by the desire to maximize profits, often at the expense of human lives. Billions of dollars in profits are at stake, compelling alliances between government leaders and pharmaceutical companies. Such complex, interrelated issues of corporate responsibility, government inaction/action in support of corporate malfeasance, however, are difficult to address within the confines and conventions of the political thriller or a limited running time.Set and filmed in Kenya, The Constant Gardener opens with Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a mid-level, middle-aged British diplomat and his wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), an aid worker, standing on a tarmac, exchanging pleasantries before she departs for a fact-finding mission. The scene ends as the bright sunlight whites out the screen, segueing into a shot of a jeep turned on its side near a seashore, a wheel spinning ominously. The news of Tessa’s death ripples outward, initially affecting Justin’s close friend, Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston), a fellow diplomat, and Justin himself. The Constant Gardener then moves backwards in time, covering Justin and Tessa’s first meeting at a lecture (Tessa denounces Britain’s controversial involvement in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, followed by a mass walkout by the other attendees).
"Likely to make this reviewer's yearly top-10 list."
From that shaky beginning of political differences (and age, as Justin’s position in the diplomatic hierarchy suggests a significant age disparity), Justin and Tessa’s relationship turns romantic. Assigned to Nairobi, Kenya, Justin settles into a life of comfort and complacency, spending his leisure time in his beloved garden. Tessa’s political activism, however, takes her to the slums, where, in addition to witnessing abject poverty, she discovers that a multinational pharmaceutical company is running clinical trials on the poor forced to participate in them. Tessa gathers information with the help of a Belgian-Congolese doctor, Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), whose continuing presence in Tessa’s life raises Justin’s anxieties and, of course, his jealousy.
Unfortunately, it’s when The Constant Gardener shifts its focus permanently from Tessa’s work among the poor to Justin’s globetrotting investigation, complete with obligatory scenic stops (e.g., London, Amsterdam, Berlin, and back to Kenya) that the storyline begins to lose momentum (likely due to the compression necessary in adapting a novel to the limited running time). Despite Justin’s newfound political activism and repeated attempts to hide his identity, another issue with the storyline surfaces: the villains (mostly faceless) are always one step of him, raising the obvious question as to why Justin is allowed to live. The scenes where Justin locates key sources, obtains the next, necessary piece of information that will unlock the mystery, flow by in rapid, perfunctory fashion, often referring to unfamiliar or less familiar off screen characters. Justin’s investigation also gets a helpful hand from a conveniently placed hacker/computer genius, Tessa’s young cousin, who accesses her e-mail and electronic files with near-absurd ease (he guesses her password on the first try).
More importantly, Fernando Meirelles and his screenwriter Jeffrey Caine, in adapting Le Carré’s novel, occasionally takes a heavy-handed approach to the political material, allowing his characters to turn dialogue scenes into speeches about the evils of multinational corporations, government malfeasance, and, of course, the dangers they pose. In an otherwise intelligent political thriller, Meirelles and Caine could and should have trusted their audience to decipher the subtext for themselves, especially as Justin’s investigation into Tessa’s death neatly dovetails with his efforts to learn more the secrets she refused to share with him (ostensibly to protect him). Meirelles and Caine also shortchange the scenes meant to establish Justin and Tessa's romantic relationship, making Justin’s growing obsession less likely to create audience sympathy.
Style wise, Meirelles employs a desaturated color palette, frequent handheld camerawork (a holdover from City of God), and white outs or blur outs as transitions between scenes, all of which help in creating a sense of immediacy and urgency to the unfolding storyline and Justin’s personal, emotional journey from bourgeois complacency (and obsessive gardener) to radical activism. Meirelles also succeeds in eliciting sympathy for his characters, especially Justin (ably played by Ralph Fiennes, perfectly cast as tortured romantic) and Tessa (Rachel Weisz, persuasive as a committed social activist). Fiennes, in his introductory scene where he learns of Tessa's death, and, later, when he returns to London alone, conveys the overwhelming grief of his character with the simplest of facial and body movements (a credit to his ability). It's in these quiet moments, of a grief-stricken Justin or in the all-too-brief idyllic scenes between Justin and Tessa that The Constant Gardener's real emotional impact lies.Regardless of "The Constant Gardener's" commercial or critical prospects, however, one other point is worth mentioning. Given the subject matter and the producers’ undiluted, impassioned criticism of the corporate-government nexus, it's abundantly clear that no mainstream, Hollywood studio would have financed "The Constant Gardener" (it was produced independently).
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originally posted: 08/31/05 15:09:01