Movie Review: “The Constant Gardener,” a look at Africa, activism, and pharmaceuticals

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

In a year so far painfully bereft of decent movies, Fernando Meirelles’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s “The Constant Gardener” is not so much a breath of fresh air as a bucket of cold water poured over the viewer’s head. A political drama with the trappings (and the ad campaign) of a thriller, the film takes a firm moral stance against pharmaceutical practices in Africa.

The protagonist, Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), is a timid, withdrawn diplomat stationed in Kenya who prefers to solve problems through “appropriate channels.” His wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz) is a fervent activist who uncovers and tenaciously investigates a conspiracy involving a large pharmaceuticals company which is conducting appalling tests of a new vaccine, killing many Kenyans in the process.

This story is revealed in snatches over the first half of the film, which begins when Justin is notified of Tessa’s murder. He knew little of her activities, and her death awakens some sort of activist spirit in him, the spirit that attracted him to her in the first place. As he investigates her death and discovers the far reach of the conspiracy, his own life becomes endangered. Suspense ensues. Cue political thriller standbys: a forged passport, a car chase, the works.

But “The Constant Gardener” is more than a genre exercise. Meirelles is the Brazilian director of the gang epic “City of God,” and his distinctive style of saturated colors, wobbling cameras, quick edits and odd angles is suited to Kenya. Meirelles’s Kenya has a vivid and authentic atmosphere, and, though obviously filled with tragedy, has a vivacious vitality as well. Though his admittedly somewhat frantic style is not to all tastes, he usually knows when to rein in the pyrotechnics and let the actors carry the film.

One wishes he trusted that cast once or twice more often. Fiennes, as befits his character, turns in a remarkably understated and subtle performance as a very reluctant hero who eventually does get mad as hell and won’t take it anymore (though he barely raises his voice). Weisz, though she is only in half the movie, makes Tessa a thoroughly believable character: as well as open-hearted and compassionate, she’s extremely outspoken and often somewhat rude (as we know many passionate activists can be).

“The Constant Gardener” takes a brave moral and political position as well. The British government Justin works for is deeply corrupt, in thrall to enormous corporations (the phrase “axis of evil” is used), which are, of course, after nothing but money. With the suspense of a thriller, a sweet if brief love story and a stirring message, “The Constant Gardener” is the best film of the year so far.

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