Don't you just love how the advertising for political films mentions anything but politics? The promotion for The Constant Gardener offers it as an "international thriller", emphasising the generic image of a man with a gun under the fairly meaningless tag line, "Love. At any cost."
Perhaps those in charge of such information judge such facile "hooks" to be more effective in luring an audience to the cinema than the honest admission that this is a film about the corrupt practices of pharmaceutical corporations in Africa. For once, The Constant Gardener offers the spectacle of an excitingly crafted, mainstream film that does not compromise its muckraking political intention.
Intelligently adapted by Jeffrey Caine from John Le Carré's novel, this is a tale that carefully balances and interweaves its political and personal threads. Early on, we are given a whirlwind account, in glimpses, of the unlikely love match between Justin (Ralph Fiennes), a member of the British High Commission stationed in Northern Kenya, and his firebrand, militant wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz).
After the first flush of ecstatic romance, it becomes clear that Justin will never be able to "tame" Tessa – and, in fact, he does not want to. But Tessa's continual provocations and unstinting research into the murky activities of the pharmaceutical industry among the impoverished local citizens make things tough for Justin. And when Justin receives tragic news concerning Tessa, the web of polite silence and obfuscation woven by colleagues such as Sandy (Danny Huston) becomes unbearable.
Almost every political film aimed at a mass audience has to be, it seems, the story of an individual's "awakening to consciousness" – and the passage from solipsistic passivity to ethical action. In the case of Justin, this awakening is indeed profound. From being the guy who prefers to tend to his garden rather than ruffle any official feathers, he becomes a daring double-agent, sweeping across Europe with the help of various, shadowy militants who once knew and aided Tessa.
Some viewers will find questionable a particular tactic in this story, which depends on the trailing of certain hints about Tessa's involvements with men.
Like the inclusion of the Arabic passengers in Flightplan (2005), this amounts to flirting with a reactionary reading of the character and her motives. Those who stick with The Constant Gardener will, however, find their goodwill on this score amply rewarded.
Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles handles his first English-language assignment here. Not being a fan of his previous, overblown City of God (2002), I did not expect him to handle this intricate material well. But Meirelles balances the various threads of the story perfectly. Even more surprising, his hyperactive cinematic style – bleached-out colours, jittery close-ups, fast editing, showy sound effects – works completely in accord with the priorities of the script.
Meirelles has grasped that he needs to save the big emotional moments not for his stars (who give superbly measured performances) but for the anonymous masses of Kenyan poor – whose plight here at the bottom of the global food chain recalls the devastating analysis sketched by the recent documentary Darwin's Nightmare (2004). The Constant Gardener succeeds in something that mainstream movies rarely pull off: while telling a driving story of individual heroism, it never lets the glamour of that fiction annul the grim realities that inspired it in the first place.
© Adrian Martin November 2005