By Sarah Carlson, Arts Editor
“Some very nasty things live under rocks, especially in foreign gardens.”
Justin and Tessa meet at a lecture where Justin, a diplomat of the British High Commission, is relaying a boring and excuse-filled response to who knows what. Tessa, a younger, hot-headed activist, blasts him with accusatory questions and ends up embarrassing herself. The lecture attendees eventually walk out, leaving a winded Tessa standing alone in the room with only Justin to hear her. She breaks down and apologizes as he comforts her despite her rudeness, and the two immediately become lovers and, soon, husband and wife.
This scene is told in flashback, one of many throughout “The Constant Gardener,” because Tessa is dead. She moved to Kenya with Justin and was killed while traveling down a dangerous road where vandals are prominent. How she died and for what purpose is the mystery Justin (Fiennes) must uncover, digging deeper and deeper into the life of a wife he barely knew.
Adapted from John Le Carré‘s novel, “The Constant Gardener” is filled with puzzle pieces: innocent Africans seeking medicine, cold and calculating British officials who place a higher priority on money than humanity, and Tessa (Weisz), who learned too much about big pharmaceuticals and made too many enemies. One thing is for certain, however: Le Carré was angry when he wrote his novel, and this anger comes out in full force on the screen; an anger toward big government and the mistreatment of the helpless, an anger toward the West’s monopolization of the poor in third-world countries desperately in need of medicine.
The question of whether to help the few when so many suffer is echoed throughout the film, a blistering social commentary piece that focuses on Western aid in African nations.
Tessa befriended an African doctor, Arnold, and rumors circulated of an affair. Arnold was supposedly the driver of the car Tessa died in, but his body was never found. At first glance, her death appears to be a murder—at least that’s what Justin’s fellow High Commission diplomats would like him to believe. Traditionally, Justin is patient, non-confrontational and does what he is told, but he cannot overlook the circumstances of Tessa’s death.
Gardening is Justin’s passion and he spends hours among his own plants and flowers, meticulously caring for them. He fumbles his words at times and appears shy, but his main concern is Tessa. While driving home one afternoon from a hospital, Tessa sees three of her young African friends walking down the road. She knows they have a long journey ahead of them and wants to take them along, but Justin pleads with her against it. He wants to get her home and besides, he says, millions of people suffer as they do—it can’t be helped. But we can help these people now, she protests, to no avail. Justin drives on and Tessa watches the three children grow smaller in her rearview mirror.
After Tessa’s death, Justin continues to dig, researching through Tessa’s computer files and asking the questions no one wants him to ask. Tessa uncovered damaging information against pharmaceuticals testing drugs on Africans, drugs that are not always effective and can sometimes lead to sickness and even death. He has to finish what she started. In doing so, he begins to understand her and exactly what she meant when she wanted him to stop the car and help her three friends.
In Justin’s way is the family friend, Sandy (Huston, “The Aviator”), and Sir Bernard Pelligrin (Nighy, “Love Actually”), both of whom want Justin to leave matters to the High Commission and get on with his life. The entire cast delivers outstanding performances, a requirement for such heady material. Fiennes (“Schindler’s List,” “The English Patient”) and Weisz (“About a Boy,” “Runaway Jury”) have excellent chemistry, and the flashbacks of their married life weave throughout the film and bring an even greater human aspect to the factual subject matter. Justin falls more in love with his wife with each dig he makes into the surface of the conspiracy, and we can tell what Justin is thinking and realizing about her because of the flicker in Fienne’s eyes, a true testament to his craft.
Director Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”) is masterful at setting the pace for the thriller and leading the audience through the various pieces of the puzzle. Scenes of Africa and its natives fill the screen, putting a location and a face to the statistics many in the West are easy to dismiss as hopeless cases not worth fighting for.
“The Constant Gardener” is more than a film: it’s a call to action among the ranks of “Hotel Rwanda” that cannot be pigeon-holed into a certain genre. You care for not only the characters but for the all-too-real consequences of greed and its victims. The film is an intelligent and adult thriller, mystery and love story wrapped up in the social complexities of Africa, making it one of the best films of the year.
“The Constant Gardener”
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy; directed by Fernando Meirelles
Rated R (for language, some violent images and sexual content/nudity)