The Constant Gardener
February 24, 2006
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite, Hubert Koundé, , Daniele Harford, Packson Ngugi, Bernard Otieno Oduor, Keith Pearson, Donald Sumpter,
2005 was an outstanding year for politically charged movies: Crash, Goodnight, and Good Luck, Syriana and The Constant Gardener. The last film is a tightly plotted suspense thriller based on the John Le Carre novel of the same name. When a British diplomat’s wife is mysteriously killed in a remote area of Kenya, Justin Quayle (Fiennes) decides to go looking for answers. He reflects on the past and a series of flashbacks show how he met his wife, Tessa (Weisz), fell in love and got married. He’s a conservative man and she’s fiery, outspoken person but these differences compliment each other well.
Director Fernando Meirelles frames many of their scenes together in a series of close-up shots to convey their level of intimacy. Tessa is an aid worker and convinces Justin to take her to Africa where she helps people with AIDS in dirt poor villages. She believes in helping out on the most basic level: person to person but she’s doing so in a way that upsets the powers that be and this affects Justin’s job as well as becoming the source of tension between them.
After he identifies her body, Justin returns home and begins to absently go through her personal stuff and finds out things that lead him to believe that she may have been killed for more politically motivated reasons. He takes it upon himself to find out why she was killed and who was responsible.
The first third of the movie focuses on the love story between Justin and Tessa with the political stuff in the background. Gradually, the focus changes and the political thriller takes over with the love story taking a back seat but Meirelles never loses sight of what motivates Justin’s investigation and how this affects him.
Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz have great chemistry together and are very believable as a couple in the way they talk to each other and the intimacy between them feels very genuine. Fiennes turns in another excellent performance as a complacent diplomat whose world is turned upside down when he meets Tessa and this upheaval continues even after her death. The veteran actor conveys an emotional depth and vulnerability that makes us care about his plight. There is a scene where he learns of Tessa’s death and it is a beautifully understated yet emotionally powerful one. Meirelles keeps the camera on Fiennes the entire time and we see disbelief and then grief wash over his face as he tries to keep it all contained. We empathize with his situation and want to see him expose the conspiracy that resulted in his wife’s death.
Meirelles keeps things visually interesting with restless hand-held camerawork, kinetic editing and a saturated colour scheme for the African scenes and a sober, gun-metal blue for the scenes set in England. As Justin investigates deeper and the conspiracy reveals itself, the camerawork and editing become more frenetic as the level of paranoia and danger increases and his world begins to unravel. Despite all of this flashy, stylish camerawork, Meirelles never loses sight of the personal element: the intimate love story, the compelling couple or the bigger picture – the pharmaceutical companies that make billions and billions of dollars at the expense of millions and millions of people’s lives.
The Constant Gardener shows the complex, political quagmire that exists in Africa. While its people starve and die from disease every day, their leaders get rich from deals with powerful corporations and American and British politicians. The film sheds light on the problems that plague Africa and why it is taking so long to help these people. It points the finger at the powerful pharmaceutical companies that charge these poor, third world countries outrageous prices and then take their sweet time sending much needed medicine to them. The Constant Gardener is a finely crafted political thriller that starts off as a character piece and then becomes an absorbing thriller that asks some tough questions about what exactly is going in Africa and what is happening to those people.
There are four deleted scenes totaling ten minutes that flesh out more details of the story and reveal more evidence of the conspiracy.
Also included is an “Extended Scene: Haruma – Play in Kenya” that features the entire outdoor morality play that was only featured briefly in the movie.
“Embracing Africa: Filming in Kenya” examines what it was like to shoot in Africa in many of the places that Le Carre describes in his novel and this gives the film an authenticity. The film crew worked hard not to disrupt the peoples’ lives there as much as possible.
“John Le Carre: From Page to Screen” takes a look at the source material – Le Carre’s novel – and how it was adapted into a movie. Hollywood wasn’t interested in it because it dealt with Africa and so it took a British movie producer who believed sincerely in the book to get it made with European money. Le Carre talks about what inspired and informed his novel and what he admires about Meirelles’ film.
Finally, there is “Anatomy of a Global Thriller: Behind the Scenes of The Constant Gardener” which is a pretty standard, yet well made press kit that mixes clips from the film with soundbites from cast and crew.