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.