Constant Gardener, The (2005) *** 1/2
Directed by Fernando Mereilles; screenplay, Jeffrey Caine, based on the novel by John le Carré; photography, César Charlone; editing, Claire Simpson; music, Alberto Iglesias; production design, Mark Tildesley; producer, Simon Channing Williams; released by Focus Features. 129 minutes. Rated R. CAST: Ralph Fiennes (Justin Quayle), Rachel Weisz (Tessa Quayle), Danny Huston (Sandy Woodrow), Bill Nighy (Sir Bernard Pellegrin), Pete Postlethwaite (Lorbeer), Hubert Koundé (Dr. Arnold Bluhm) and Gerard McSorley (Sir Kenneth Curtiss).
The movie is released in late summer –but to its credit, it is no “summer movie.” It has a mostly Anglo cast but is directed by the Brazilian Fernando Mereilles and shot by the Paraguayan Cesar Charlone, the duo that made (in Brazil) “City of Gold” (2002) which received an Oscar nomination plus many prizes around the world.
The source is the novel (2001) by John Le Carre who, after the demise of the Soviet Union and its satellites, moved from “Spy vs Spy” (I refer to the famous “Mad” magazine feature) to other genres.
The current film is built on zig-zags, flashbacks and flashforwards. They require concentration and attention. It does not have the “Sancta Simplicitas” of certain thrillers, like those of Alfred Hitchcock --yet this does not make it inscrutable. For starters, we know right away that the female lead Tessa (Rachel Weisz) is killed. She is a firebrand, a political/humanistic “warrior” for causes. She meets non-cute with British civil servant Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) who is much older than she is. It happens at a lecture where she loudly disagrees with him. Then (whoosh!) they are in bed together. Etc, etc. And they marry.
Justin is a British civil servant of (at best) mid-level. The title refers to his love of nurturing plants and, by contrast, his lack of enthusiasm for his profession. When Justin is assigned to Kenya, Tessa goes too. Right away she meets personalities –British and Kenyan --of all types. Mincing no words --and ever an activist—she tells them what’s in her mind, and what she says is neither polite nor flattering, she is also pregnant. Which brings me to my main bafflement of the movie. In a Kenyan hospital for the delivery, she is shown quite naked, with a big bulge. What kind special effect, if any, was used? There is no end to what computer-made images can accomplish, but for the love of me I can’t figure out how they did it here. In fact, I searched high and low for information that would say that actress Rachel Weisz was really pregnant, but I came a cropper.
No matter ,even though this distracted me from the story. Also confusing is the periodic use of sloppy hand-held cameras, their jiggles and poor focus, as in certain documentaries. (This seems to be a trend these days.)
The contrast of Justin’s passivity and Tessa’s polemical stances keeps increasing, especially when she realizes that a multinational corporation, in cahoots with corrupt governments, is experimenting --testing on poor natives as guinea pigs-- with Dypraxa, a drug against tuberculosis. (The epidemic of AIDS also plays a role in themovie.)
Suddenly, Tess and a handsome Kenyan doctor die in a car wreck. That’s when the widowed Justin comes to life, so to speak, sets out to investigate what caused those deaths, and to find out if his wife was unfaithful. In0 addition, he picks up Tess’s investigations of the malfeasances and corruptions of0000000000 Big Business, authorities and governments. And he becomes a target of powers (including highest-level ones).
Justin’s transformation is striking and believable, even though the anti-Justin roadblocks are less credible. As when he flies to London where his passport is (peculiarly) confiscated, government agents or the like, spy on him, etc. Or how he manages to go to Germany and discover more “things.” He then returns to Africa and learns even more. Add to all that that he becomes a hunted man, that he has now a death wish, that his love for the dead Tess has grown to a fantastic extent. And that he can face any and all dangers.
Among the latter, an attack, on Africans, by what feels like an import from the Sudan: that is the Janjaweed. (It means “man with a gun on a horse.”)
I can’t think of any film I reviewed and described to such an extent. Mind you, I am only scratching the surface, as this movie cannot possibly be summarized. It has its several obscurities, its shifts from awful colors to superb ones, it zig zags, has bafflements for Justin and for us the audience.
The movie is fascinating. So is Africa. And in a sense so are the film’s mysteries, idiosyncracies, unclarities, and, for that matter, its frustrations. There is no doubt that there are bits of artsiness or annoying techniques (overexposures, gaps, plot-holes, irrationalities, etc.)
But then, warts and all, we get here something most unusual and open to interpretations. This is a one-of-a-kind work that makes its own rules and sets its own rules. Must see.