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Drawing on the John le Carré reservoir guarantees a face-smacking degree of literate sophistication, pander-free dialogue, and ethical ambiguity, and Fernando Meirelles’s adaptation of The Constant Gardener drinks deeply at the trough. For an English-language movie with recognizable stars, its measure of social maturity can be startling, but it’s also a bristling demonstration of the formal difficulty of liberal narrative, and of ambitious third-world tourist-cinema. When does the rapturous filming of, and gazing upon, poverty become capitalization, and class shame become entertainment?
It helps that The Constant Gardener is itself concerned with the profound discomfort of postcolonial activity in Africa. Even well-intended white interventions raise more questions about responsibility and conscience than they answer; le Carré is peerlessly adept at rephrasing those questions in fictional terms. This isn’t lost on Meirelles, whose Miramax moneymaker City of God has been both revered and slammed for its pow-whiz-splat pyrotechnics but which also maintained the maze-like plotting of its source novel. A master of offbeat compositions, Meirelles cannot help overheating his Avid, and the new film has City of God‘s Tourette’s-esque editing strategy. For its first third or so, The Constant Gardener bops between now and then, joy and grief. Now, Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a shy, low-rung British diplomat and horticultural hobbyist in Kenya, learns that his activist wife was found dead on the veld; then, Quayle meets outspoken lefty Tessa (Rachel Weisz) in London, falls in love, and decides at her prodding to take her back with him to Africa.
Thus embarking reticently on the search for Tessa’s killer, Quayle is gang-slammed into a character arc—from complacent, make-no-waves Englishman to off-the-radar avenging angel—that is just one of the tired ideas the movie makes utterly convincing and involving. Fiennes is clearly both the beneficiary of an insightfully written character and the film’s big gun; underplaying Quayle all the way to the edge of civilization, he never lets the character’s natural, quiet desperation get buried beneath the dramatics.
What Quayle soon runs up against is Big Pharma, exercising its very real muscle in both ignoring the easily treated diseases of the third world and using its “disposable” populations for off-the-books R&D. The fictional version of this genuine global calamity is one of
The Constant Gardener‘s jabs that fall short—the particulars, in a movie river-running with on-location details, aren’t terribly sensible. (Hitchcock may’ve maintained that macguffins are irrelevant, but his films never addressed political horror.) If the pharmaceutical industry—routinely crossing the finishing line as the most profitable in the U.S.—should be excoriated, it is for the ratio of its monstrous revenues to the paltry medical support it provides to third- world countries. Focusing on other, smaller conspiracies seems irrational. Indeed, le Carré agrees: His postscript statement on the credits realizes that “by comparison with the reality [of the ‘pharmaceutical jungle’], my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.”
But perhaps the more basic kvetch to make is about Meirelles’s style, a cannonballing mélange of hack-cuts, impressionistic close-ups, and tropical swelter. City of God had a racy, comic-book persona to rev up, but le Carré’s story is a sober odyssey. I wouldn’t call The Constant Gardener exploitative, even if it does exploit our grateful distance as viewers from the vast Kenyan slum of Kibera, and cinematographer César Charlone’s irradiated images of wholesale destitution. But look to films made by Africans, and none of them indulge in this sensationalized, sun-scorched hyperbole. A middle-classer from Rio, Meirelles is just as dedicated to pounding home a lurid idea of dangerous African otherness as any commercial Brit filmmaker—Ridley Scott, say, or Richard Attenborough.
I can’t hold much of a grudge in any case, because although le Carré’s story may seem predictable and unduly focused on the plight
of a pale, wealthy Old Worlder adrift in a sea of needy East Africans, the movie’s human material is masterfully manipulated. With the exception of Danny Huston—casting directors, wake up—sporting a freshman-theater-major BBC accent, the cast lives in full four dimensions, seamlessly invoking offscreen pasts and between-the-scenes lives. Attaining credibility in your rendition of romantic intimacy is no small matter; neither are Weisz’s natural warmth, throaty laugh, and eye-poppingly believable pregnancy prosthetic. Even Bill Nighy, as a mendacious British High Commission VIP, manages to be both viciously wry and absolutely authentic.
For all of its earnest political self- pickling, The Constant Gardener has the bite and fiber of a college-educated-adult experience, a fact that distinguishes it in the Harry Potter Era. If it’s to be taken as evidence as well as critique of postcolonialism’s double-cutting blade, so be it.