The Constant Gardener

Literary spy master John Le Carre is at his best when dealing with strangers in a strange land, faced with uncomfortable truths challenging their moral ambit. Mixing a strong political undercurrent with global espionage and romance, Le Carre’s novels make for grand entertainment, but not always entertaining movies.


The Constant Gardener, like Le Carre’s The Russia House and The Tailor of Panama, deals with a diplomat caught up in some extremely undiplomatic situations. Distancing The Constant Gardener from other run-of-the-mill political thrillers is the sense of loss and urgency punctuated by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles. The director of City of God doesn’t just tell us a story, he forces us to become part of it, to feel the character’s pain, misery, loss, and confusion.

Meirelles succeeds, careful not to let The Constant Gardener become a soapbox. What emerges is a film which manages to say something while cleverly engaging us in complex plot threads. Meirelles and writer Jeffrey Caine wisely put the bullhorn down and allow their characters to speak honestly and realistically about Third World issues affecting Africa and its people.

As in the novel, Caine’s screenplay begins with the death of an important character, Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz), fiery political activist recently married to British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes). Since all we know of Tessa is where she was found and how she died, it’s up to Justin to serve as her voice from the grave. Polar opposites, Tessa meets Justin as he’s delivering a speech in London. It doesn’t take long before they’re married and Justin is assigned to a post in Nairobi.

Staid Justin sees the latest assignment as just another stop in his career, one more opportunity to plant and tend to his garden. The metaphor isn’t lost on Tessa, who continues her advocacy work in Africa, upsetting numerous factions. Since The Constant Gardener begins with Tessa’s death, the mystery isn’t she dies, but why. At first Justin takes her death as just another life lesson, allowing the British government to investigate. When Justin realizes Tessa was as much an enigma in life as in death, he begins his own investigation.

The Constant Gardener isn’t typical Le Carre. It has something more weighty on its mind. It deals with pharmaceutical companies using Third World citizens as Guinea Pigs, a notion which would be outrageous if it weren’t so plausible. As Justin digs deeper into his wife’s life and death, we find ourselves diving head first down the rabbit hole, desperate to see what’s on the other side.

Meirelles incorporates different shooting styles for each story arc, cinematic landmarks to keep the audience on track. Chaos and confusion are captured in bleached out, hand-held shots that lend authenticity to the images. Like in City of God, Meirelles blends scenes of beauty and ugliness into an exciting palette.

Anyone who saw City of God knows Meirelles is a brave filmmaker, and his confidence is contagious. The actors are asked to take tremendous leaps of emotional faith, and not once do we sense hesitation. The chemistry between Fiennes and Weisz is honest and real, necessary to help us believe these two ships not only crossed in the night, but decided to dry dock. At first the connection is tenuous, more about sex and exploring boundaries, but as the story unfolds, we see and understand so much more. Fiennes and Weisz go beyond convention and conviction and become possessed by the star-crossed lovers.

Like Hotel Rwanda, The Constant Gardener unearths uncomfortable truths which require the casual viewer to abandon the safety of their theater seat. Like Justin, those willing to take the trip won’t be disappointed.

Digging For The Truth

Gardener Unearths Uncomfortable Realities

The Constant Gardener

Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite. Directed by Fernando Meirelles. Rated R. 130 Minutes.

Larsen Rating: $8.00



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