A film review by Craig J. Koban



RANK: # 3


2005, R, 129 mins.

Justin Quayle: Ralph Fiennes / Tessa Quayle: Rachel Weisz / Sandy Woodrow: Danny Huston / Arnold Bluhm: Hubert Kounde / Sir Bernard Pellegrin: Bill Nighy / Lorbeer: Pete Postlethwaite

Directed by Fernando Meirelles /  Written by Jeffrey Caine, based on the novel by John Le Carre

THE CONSTANT GARDENER - one of the truly best directed films of 2005, if not of recent memory -  may parade around as a rather pointed social and political allegory, but it ultimately is a poignant and masterfully executed and told love story.  I use the term poignant in the sense that the film outlines a man’s growing level of respect and love for his wife, all after she has died under highly dubious and suspicious circumstances.  What then emerges is a film that starts out as a love story, then engages into a murder mystery, then progresses to be a preachy and politically charged activist film that really says something that deserves to be heard, and then finally concludes as a touching, if not tragic, love story again. 

The fact that it masterfully combines all of these seemingly divergent elements to create one universally cohesive and absorbing film is to its ultimate credit.  This film is eloquent, purposeful, enriching, touching, and ultimately very engrossing with its story and characters.  This is one of the most intoxicating and invigorating films I’ve seen.  It is able to involve its audience while being constantly one step ahead of them at all times, not to mention that its tale of Third World strife, corporate malfeasance, and heartfelt love creates a framework for a powerfully resonant drama.  I have rarely been as moved by a film as I have with this one, and it contains a level of depth, sophistication, intelligence, and importance with its story that was able to strike not only an emotional cord with me, but also a analytical one.  THE CONSTANT GARDENER is also a wake-up call and a sobering lessen to the types of apocalyptic strife and health concerns that are plaguing modern day Africa.  This film is not your typical late summer cineplex offering – it’s one of those rare film going experiences that actually is about something meaningful and relevant that can strike even the most cynical of filmgoer with conviction and meaning.

The film itself is an adaptation of a book by John Le Carré which, by all accounts of those that have read it, is an angry and labyrinthian novel of complexity, not to mention that it is one of broken memories, splintered narrative cues, and moments that are established, stopped before they are finished, and are later picked up again to be concluded in a satisfying manner.  Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles adapted the convoluted book, who also directed the brilliant and dazzling CITY OF GOD, widely praised as one of the finest films of the last few years.  Much like that film, Meirelles imparts in GARDENER that unique style of guerrilla, kinetic, in-your-face filmmaking aesthetic that makes you feel like you are an undeniable participant in the film’s events.   

Because of this, GARDENER always feels loose, frantic, improvisational, carefree, and intrinsically believable and grounded.  It makes such incredible use of real African locations that you’d swear you are watching some extraordinary documentary.  To say it feels like a documentary is high praise, because as a work of fiction it’s such a stirring and gripping thriller that exposes the lecherous and despicable things that are being perpetrated on the poor and defenseless that it only enrages our own misgivings about the amorality of politicians and corporations.  This film works on you and will not be quick to leave you. 

GARDENER is kind of a completely necessary prescription that I would give out willingly to any filmgoer that is bored and turned off by the current receptive sludge that has been thrown at us at the summer’s cinemas.  This is, with all due fairness and respect, not a film for those lay film fans that love shoot outs, explosions, high octane chases, and moments of mayhem that lead to a conclusion of finality and satisfying closure.  GARDENER is the ultimate antithesis of all of those traits.  This film is a downer, to be sure, but I am reminded of what one famous film critic said about depressing films – only the bad movies are truly depressing. 

Sometimes, even the most nihilistic and cynical films with a hard edge can be the most rewarding and uplifting, if all done with the right level of gravitas and skill.  GARDENER may be a fictionalized film and a love story, but it also is a powerfully enthralling “message film” that embarks on one simple mission – to deal with the way medicines are tested on third world countries without a care in the world as to the side effects, all while being done to net pharmaceutical companies billions of dollars in profits.  GARDENER also poses one other moral conundrum – what’s worse, the acts that are being perpetrated or the fact that, more times than not, they are effectively covered up with very little consequences? 

The film is grand in scope, themes, and tone, but it starts simply.  We are thrust into the story quickly and are introduced to two complete strangers – both played by Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, in two of the very best performances of the year.  We first meet Justin Quayle (Fiennes), who is a rather meager, congenial, and soft-spoken UK diplomat that works in Kenya.  Very early on we also meet Tessa (Weisz, who has never been better) who is an activist that really lays into poor old Justin at a local press conference.  When her harsh and overtly spiteful words turn everyone off in the room and clears it out, the two are all that's left.  They are polar opposites without very much seemingly in common, yet they quickly cling together and sparks fly.  They have night of voyeuristic promiscuity, forge a relationship, and get married, so fast that neither the audience, nor the couple themselves, really get a chance to known them in any detail.  This, of course, is crucial for the rest of the film. 

Soon his young wife is pregnant with his child and she wants to come with him to Africa to be with him at all times while he performs his occupational duties.  It should be noted that her activist duties are a closely guarded secret to both the husband and the audience.  We are never really sure what she is up to at first.  At the risk of this sounding like a spoiler (which it is not, in a way) Tessa and her driver – Arnold – are viscously murdered while they traveled in their jeep on a lonely stretch of highway.  Officials seem to think that the cause of their deaths were due to local bandit raids, but were they?  Justin, being a smart man, thinks otherwise. 

Not only that, but Tessa was a known activist with a passion.  Did she find out something that officials did not want found?  What was she personally involved in?  Moreover, who was Arnold? Was he just a trusted sidekick and driver, or was he more to Tessa, like a lover, perhaps?  Did Arnold have anything to do with her activism, or did he involve her in any potentially dangerous information that acted as a predicator to her death? 

Tessa dies relatively early in the film, far too early for us, the audience, to really get a firm grasp on who she was or what she got herself involved in.  In this way, THE CONSTANT GARDENER makes the transition rather smoothly into its ultimate story of discovery.  The rest of the film is told in broken up flashbacks that further elaborate and enlighten the audience of the particulars of Justin and Tessa’s relation before her death.  We learn more about Tessa as Justin does and we both grown to understand (a) her motives and why she involved herself in what she did and (b) as a result of this we begin to see this woman in a whole new light.  The film is an amazing journey for Justin.  Whereas he first has to deal with concerns of whether his wife was cheating on him before her death, he is later faced with harsh realities of her life that makes his initial concerns seem modest and foolhardy at best. 

As the film progresses it becomes abundantly clear that Tessa found herself involved in something so sinister that her death appears like the unfortunate result of a vast cover up.  Was this linked to Arnold and his exploits, or maybe there is a correlation to Tessa and the new drug that is being pumped into Africa to help cure TB?  The more Justin thinks about these and many more particulars, the more obsessed he becomes, which only enrages his superiors (Danny Huston and Bill Nighy).  They plead with him to keep his lips sealed about anything that he has found out and urge him strongly to drop the matter, not to mention to return some stolen material that Tessa apparently locked away, that is if Jimmy knows where it is.  The film grows absorbing and unnerving in the way we yearn to learn more right alongside Jimmy.  The more we find out with him, the more we want to know.  More importantly, regardless of any political mess that Tessa found herself in, Jimmy’s mission is not so much about probing her activist lifestyle as it is a search for a final answer to one particular question – was Tessa a faithful and loving wife? 

Aside from being an infectious murder mystery, THE CONSTANT GARDENER also manages to have the foresight to ask some really pertinent and far-reaching questions.  For example, do drug companies really use drugs in Third World countries to assist the poor while using that as a front to test other drugs that could be manufactured and used later for a gigantic profit?  Secondly, if drug companies do, if fact, partake in this willingly, do they not care about the countless lives that they are ruining as unwillingly guinea pigs?  There is a cruel and unflinching undercurrent of indictment to the film, and the fact that GARDENER is so thoroughly captivating as an allegory, as a mystery and as a love story is a minor miracle. 

The way one could also interpret the Tessa character is endless intriguing in it's possibilities as well, which makes it all the more problematic for the desperate Jimmy.  Was she really such a strong activist that she allowed herself to become involved in something so vast and large that she got herself assassinated for it?  Or, was she simply an adulterer who slept with another man and both of them managed to go where they should not have and were killed by some desperate and cruel marauders?  The film tantalizes us with one possibility and then reverts to another answer and then to another…and another… 

Ralph Fiennes, one of our most underrated and quietly powerful of actors, turns in one of his finest performances as Jimmy.  He is such a reserved everyman and his capacity for wanting to get answers and get answers right away are not too hard to identify with.  He is a nice and unassuming man; one who appears as an unlikely hero of a thriller in the sense that you never get the impression that he likes the situation that he places himself in.  He wants to learn everything about his wife…and he does not.  Weisz, who has unbelievable chemistry with Fiennes, has the trickiest part in the film in the sense that she plays up to a certain level of expectations and then goes the other way.  He character is a real enigma and Fiennes (as well as us) are forced to peel away her layers until we come to what’s underneath. 

GARDENER, outside of being a riveting story, is also another film that highlights Meirelles as one of the cinema’s most gifted visualists behind the camera.  His shots are so far ranging – some are hauntingly beautiful in their scope and scenery, others are claustrophobic in their breakneck speed and sharp juxtaposition.  His efforts create a seamless whole and makes GARDENER feel like a docudrama, which only gives the work a feeling or realism and chilling verisimilitude.  Meirelles does two things – he makes Africa look stunning and beautiful as well as harsh, brutal, and uncompromising.  The film’s sure-fire direction and absolutely stunning and visionary cinematography deserves some serious attention come Oscar season next spring. 

THE CONSTANT GARDENER is endlessly fascinating; a film that is multi-faceted in terms of style and themes and still manages to hold all of its diverse ingredients together to form a cogent and exemplary entertainment.  The film highlights a certain contemptible edge regarding not only world politics, but also commerce, and its portrayal of those two enterprises, by the final act, emerges as something tasteless and reprehensible.  Yet, despite the film’s pandering towards having a concrete agenda in terms of speaking it’s mind (and despite a conclusion that may turn many off) the final product – at least I think – at its essence is about love, losing one’s soul mate, and then rediscovering your affection for another long after they’ve departed from this plane of existence.  This is a work that hums with nail biting suspense, intrigue, and has a conscience through and through.  It’s simply one of 2005’s most expertly crafted films.


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