The Constant Gardener: a decent film with a message about corporate greed and psychopathy within the limits of the political thriller genre

Fernando Meirelles, “The Constant Gardener” (2005)

Based on the novel of the same name by John le Carré, this film combines elements of the spy thriller with an environmental message about corporate greed and cynicism. At the same time it’s a personal story of loss and regret leading to self-discovery, courage and self-sacrifice. Justin (Ralph Fiennes) is a shy diplomat at the British High Commission in Kenya grieving over the death of his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) who was brutally killed while travelling through a remote part of Kenya with her driver. Initially a doctor friend (Herbert Koundé) of hers is blamed for the murders but Justin discovers the doctor was killed the same day as she was and moreover was not her lover in spite of various insinuations floating about.

The first half of the film is told in flashback starting from when Justin and Tessa first meet and fall in love. Tessa is a lawyer who takes on cases dealing with issues of social justice, a topic Justin has shied away from in his work and horticultural leisure pursuits. While their marriage seems ideal and they both treasure each other, Justin never quite understands Tessa’s zeal or the work that she is doing, and Tessa is not completely honest about why she approached Justin initially. It turns out that she is investigating drug trials being conducted by a large and powerful pharmaceutical corporation on poor communities in Kenya, and has uncovered evidence of lies and cover-ups concerning the severe side effects suffered by the people in the trials. She needs Justin as his job gives him – and her – clearance to travel around Kenya with minimum hassle from local authorities. In the course of his investigation into his wife’s murder, Justin soon learns that his boss Sir Bernard Pellegrin (Bill Nighy) ordered surveillance on Tessa to stop her from publicising her information. As Justin continues with his searches, he also comes within the target sights of Tessa’s killers and must decide whether he should retreat back to his old life as a pen-pushing bureaucrat and part-time horticulturalist or continue to find Tessa’s killers at the cost of his own life.

For its length, the film moves smoothly and relentlessly to its goal as Justin investigates his wife’s murder, finds out that the murderers have tried to besmirch her name and that of her driver, and discovers that her activist work put her life in extreme danger. The perpetrators are very powerful individuals who will stop at nothing to hide their crimes and they have links to the highest levels in the British and Kenyan governments. The plot is complicated but not too much so, and viewers will get some enjoyment of guessing who Tessa’s killers are before Justin does. The flashbacks and choppy edits may confuse some watchers and obscure the plot’s message of corporate skulduggery, greed and psychopathy in sacrificing the lives of people in the pursuit of profit and glory.

The film’s best assets are its lead actors Fiennes and Weisz who obviously relish the roles they were given and play them to the hilt. There is good screen chemistry between the two, and viewers get a good sense of Fiennes maturing from the diffident everyday man who initially prefers to keep his head down and tail up, not really understanding his wife’s zeal, to someone who fully appreciates the loss and emptiness left behind by her death, and the value of her work. In understanding his wife and her work, he finds a new inspiration to guide his life and the courage to follow Tessa. Danny Huston plays decent support as Sandy Woodrow whose allegiances are never entirely clear until the final scene. Other fine actors like Archie Panjabi and Bill Nighy are reduced to wallpaper when perhaps their characters should be much more significant in the plot’s development.

Parts of the film are stereotyped – there is the obligatory car chase – and of course with a Kenyan setting there must be ample time given over to filming scenes of magnificent wildlife and appalling Third World poverty and squalor which borders on racism. Because the film’s focus is on white individuals, and in particular on developing the love story between the two main characters so that the audience feels attachment and sympathy for them, the effect is to render Kenyan people as background props, which tends to support an unintentional and stereotyped view of white people like Tessa as saviours to helpless Third World people being exploited by other white people and their institutions and structures. The apartheid society installed by the British in Kenya in colonial times has survived intact and unless viewers are alert to the historical background, they may not notice the divisions between black and white people.

In all, the film is quite good within the limitations of its genre but it might have been a great movie if it had gone beyond the suspense action thriller requirements.

Pumzi: short film with powerful message of preserving resources, freedom and human imagination and dignity

Wanuri Kahiu, “Pumzi” (“Breath”) (2009)

Just over 20 minutes long, this movie short from Kenya is set in a post-apocalyptic future where a global war has rendered the surface of the Earth dangerously radioactive and completely barren and water has all but disappeared. The remnants of the human population live underground and are ruled by a highly repressive technocratic state that outlaws daydreaming, in case it encourages independent thinking and innovation. In this sterile environment, Asha (Kudzani Moswela) works as a curator at the Virtual Reality Museum where she grows hydroponic plants. One day she receives a parcel with no return address. She opens it and finds soil inside that’s not radioactive and has a high water content. Information about the soil’s original location and its latitude and longitude co-ordinates is enclosed but that’s it. Impossible, she knows – but she pops some of the soil into a jar, pours water into it and inserts one of her hydroponic plants into the soil. Instead of going black and wilting to death, the plant starts to germinate. Asha reports her findings to her superiors via a PC-conferencing keyboard that vocally pronounces her thoughts and reproduces her dreams visually, and requests an exit visa to leave her part of the warren and travel to the area where the soil sample was found by the unknown parcel-sender. Incensed, Asha’s superiors order her arrest and the destruction of her work. Guards quickly arrive in the Museum and smash things and take her into custody. Helped by a janitor (Charlotte Burger), Asha retrieves a compass, her plant and her water bottle and escapes her underground home into the desert.

The dystopian future world where Asha lives and works is beautifully and starkly presented: it’s a minimalist and sterile arena where everyone dresses the same and has the same hair-style, or none rather, as in these times of rigorous water rationing, washing your hair wastes the precious liquid. Every single drop of water or its derivation must be saved so when Asha uses the communal bathroom or works up a sweat exercising on the gym equipment which is designed to convert human energy into kinetic energy for electricity, she must pop the waste product into a steriliser and use the purified water. Sooner or later she’s going to run out of water as every time she recycles it, some of it must be lost through her metabolism as water vapour in the air she breathes out. So she’d have to buy a new supply of water and that would put her in debt to the totalitarian state. Clever idea! We see just a small part of this society but as it deals with such deeply personal issues as conserving and recycling your own body wastes, it tells us much about the control the state exercises over Asha and the other humans without any need for voice-over exposition or dialogue between characters. Asha and the people she interacts with show very little emotion – being poker-faced here may mean the difference between life and death – but we get a sense of Asha’s desperation as she becomes a fugitive to preserve the few freedoms she has: freedom to dream, freedom to hope for a different future, freedom to investigate and follow a particular area of scientific research and to bring possible benefits to others.

Moswela’s acting is spare and precise; the camera often focusses on her face as emotions flit quickly over her eyes and cheeks, or on her long slender fingers as she opens the parcel, puts the soil into the jar and then the plant inside. She bridges the two halves of the film, the first half taking place underground and the second half featuring her travels in the harsh desert seeking the tree of her dreams. Asha’s wanderings look like the stuff of allegory, referencing perhaps the wanderings of Jesus in the desert for 40 days and nights subject to the Devil’s temptations, or the hardships Siddhartha Gautama put himself under before he found enlightenment and became the Buddha. She meets with superficial triumph followed by despair but never gives up hope for her plant. Some viewers can guess in advance what happens to Asha but her context leaves her with virtually no options.

Preservation of the earth’s resources is a strong theme as is also the relationship of an individual to the State and how the State can have a stranglehold over people’s bodies, thoughts, imagination and behaviour. There is much symbolism as well: the plant represents hope, the future and the regeneration of life among other things; its germination paradoxically puts Asha’s own life in danger. Asha represents the independent thinker, the lone seeker who must exist on the edges of society to find truth. Her relationship to her people mirrors the ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in which prisoners in a cave believe shadows and illusions represent reality as they are compelled to face the cave walls only, until one prisoner is freed and is able to look outside the cave. Asha could also be an Earth Mother giving her life to nurture her plant.

The film might benefit from a longer and more involved treatment of its themes, ideas and characters: we learn very little about Asha’s background and her motivations and why she’s prepared to be a fugitive rather than give in to her superiors. As it is, it’s recommended watching as a description of what our world could be like after global wars have made Earth sterile and destroyed democracy and political freedoms.