Universal // 2005 // 129 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // January 10th, 2006
Love. At any cost.
Fernando Meirelles's debut film City of God got the world's attention. His follow-up effort, The Constant Gardener, performed respectably in the box office (considering that the summer season doesn't traditionally favor smart, dense, political thrillers). It garnered considerable critical buzz at the time, and has since won British Independent Film Awards for Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best British Independent Film.
The DVD streets today, and if the signs hold true, The Constant Gardener is primed for huge DVD sales. It is the hottest new release at Amazon and is getting heavy awards ceremony recognition for best actor, best actress, best adapted screenplay, best director, and best film. The Constant Gardener practically defines the term "sleeper hit."
Is all of the hype worth it? Let's just say that if The Constant Gardener is what passes for Meirelles's sophomore slump, then perhaps the pantheon of great directors should consider dusting off a pedestal for its newest inductee.
Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) is a composed, party-line-towing diplomat with the British High Commission. When the bleeding heart firebrand Tessa (Rachel Weisz, Constantine) confronts him after a lecture on world politics, Justin's life is turned upside down. She begs him to take her to Africa -- as his mistress, lover, wife, or whatever.
He picks "wife." While he does diplomatic things and tends to his garden, Tessa and the handsome African doctor Arnold (Hubert Koundé, My Father and I) wander the Kenyan ghettos and dig up dirt on pharmaceutical companies. This behavior pisses off Justin's coworker Sandy (Danny Huston, Silver City) who loves Tessa, and Sir Bernard Pellegrin (Bill Nighy, Love Actually) who does not.
Tessa's espionage does not mix well with Big Pharma, upset bigwigs in Her Majesty's government, and an African continent rife with corruption and violence. Justin will have to choose between honoring his hot-headed wife or following the mandates of his diplomatic peers. When he decides, it sets off a whirlwind tour through a seedy underbelly of back-scratching, blind-eyed, money-grubbing VIPs. Justin will need every underground resource at his disposal to uncover the truth.
John Le Carré wrote it. Jeff Abberley pounced on and produced it. Fernando Meirelles directed it. The Constant Gardener is of these three, but not precisely theirs. You can see touches of Le Carré and Meirelles, and feel Abberley's passion behind it, but the meld is something entirely its own.
Meirelles's touch is clear from the beginning. The Constant Gardener employs an effective azure-bronze complimentary color scheme, with plenty of blacks, grays, steel blues, and whites to keep gaudiness in check. Deep aqua waters contrast with the rusted shacks and dusty steppes of Kenya. Justin favors conservative gray clothes that gradually warm to orange as the picture gains momentum. This palette is striking and effective, even if it is omnipresent and wearing in scenes that don't necessarily call for such stark treatment.
In-vogue documentary techniques give this fictional tale an absolutely realistic sense. From Winged Migration-like birds and gritty outdoor shots to the quiet moments of daily life, The Constant Gardener walks and talks like a documentary. This is effective when the sense of credibility needs to be absolute, but a detriment when people are reading the newspaper or walking down the hallway. Nonetheless, The Constant Gardener's high style leaves a lasting impression and is effective at the most important times.
Color and style are nice touches, but Meirelles's stamp is felt most strongly through his eye for the downtrodden. Segments of the population that British political thrillers often gloss over with slightly racist caricature find life and color in The Constant Gardener. In this more than anything else, Meirelles elevates Le Carré's story beyond twists and intrigue to an alternately moving and heartbreaking take on African issues.
Questions keep The Constant Gardener alive. We're constantly asked to speculate on Tessa's fidelity, Sandy's loyalty, Justin's perception, and other human traits that receive short shrift in most spy thrillers. After all, spies are humans working within a society. They have good days and bad days, hopes and fears. The Constant Gardener emphasizes this side of espionage over fights and shootings. In fact, when car chases and violence manifest, they feel like an affront -- which they should.
These interactions would be useless were the cast not up to the task. Rachel Weisz shines; I'm not sure that The Mummy Returns really tested her gifts. She is absolutely convincing, both in her love and her secrecy. Tessa is a living, breathing character who happens to look like Weisz. She is the catalyst for the entire film, and without this honest performance from Weisz, The Constant Gardener would be for naught. Ralph Fiennes is downright approachable, and he transitions believably from dweeb to vigilante over the course of the film. Fiennes is known for his acting prowess and understated delivery, both of which serve his character. I really had trouble picturing these two as an item before watching the film, but they make sparks that smoulder for the duration.
These two deserve the lion's share of credit, but the supporting cast is damn near flawless. Each character in The Constant Gardener is distinct and memorable; partly due to shorthand emphasis of character traits, but mostly due to the acting.
Despite these positives, The Constant Gardener left me feeling empty afterward. (Spoilers ahead...) Perhaps it was because the leads never had a fully honest connection to each other, and their relationship grew most post-mortem. Maybe I resented the constant stream of red herrings. Maybe African tragedy is just too sad.
I can say with certainty that the ending was dissatisfying. After the immense growth of his character, the leverage he'd gained, why did Justin lie down? He had a plane, a gun, money, knowledge, and friends. He had a mission with much left to accomplish. Perhaps his execution was certain. But wouldn't staying alive have been a more fitting tribute to Tessa? Wouldn't the attempt to right things, disburse funds, help people -- even the attempt to live -- been the better course?
Universal gets things right with this release. From the opening shots to the closing credits, I was astounded at the level of visual and aural clarity. I subconsciously glimpsed edge enhancement here and there, but it could as easily have been an intentional byproduct of the film's stylization and blooming whites. Otherwise, the colors are rich and deep, the detail sharp, and contrast strong. Enveloping surround sound made me feel like I was in the movie, which is what it's supposed to do. Throaty bass and a sophisticated dynamic range made the audio a pleasant, visceral experience when scenes got intense.
The extras aren't overwhelming in scope, nor are they lengthy, but they are judicious and informative. Most telling were the deleted scenes. In retrospect, they were deleted for obvious reasons, but they are fascinating peeks into what was going on in the mind of Fernando Meirelles. I might have left in one of the scenes: a Kenyan man is late for work. He rides his bike from the dusty outskirts, through poverty and rudimentary manufacturing, into the squalid city, and finally through the marble pillars of British territory, where he walks into the kitchen, dons a tux, and serves wine. It reminds me favorably of Scorsese's famous tracking shot into the nightclub in Goodfellas, while positing a reasonable encapsulation of African history in the process.
Aside from deleted (and one extended) scenes, the DVD offers a trio of featurettes. They focus on distinct topics, but were filmed at the same time and produced by the same crew. Le Carré gives his stamp of approval; this is noteworthy because Le Carré is no fan of Hollywood, and would rather be caught dead in a bathtub full of plagiarized Fleming novels than provide a fluff piece for a DVD. The other two featurettes share the same vibe of back-patting and gushing, yet we sense that the enthusiasm is genuine. From the way that Kenya embraced the movie to the charity created by the cast and crew, the featurettes give us a sense of a filmmaking venture that became more.
My reaction to the film is far from universal. Many critics decry it as a Eurocentric, armchair activist guilt trip that poorly disguises its liberal agenda. Where are the Africans helping themselves? Where does the burden fall on Africa's own war mongering and clapboard governments? Why is it all about Whitey?
I honestly wonder if such critics saw the same film I did. Let's leave aside that The Constant Gardener is Eurocentric and does have a liberal agenda. Let's concede that for some arbitrary reason a film should be about what other people think it should be about instead of what the filmmakers delivered, and pretend that something is wrong with Westerners looking only at themselves where Africa is concerned. (It's based on a freaking Le Carré novel!) Even with those "concessions" in place, the claims simply aren't valid.
Meirelles constantly shows us how Africa hurts itself. We see corrupt police, AIDS, and Africans pushing bad drugs on other Africans. Stop me if I misunderstood, but one of the pivotal scenes in the movie shows African bandits raiding African camps to steal children for slaves along with the UN supplied-rations. I promise you that Meirelles was not excluding African culpability. No one got a free pass.
As for the lack of Africans helping themselves (spoiler)...why was Arnold castrated and crucified? For jaywalking? What of the network of African activists, pilots, politicians, and aid workers scattered throughout the film?
Another criticism is that the Big Bad Pharmaceutical Company cum arms dealer allusion is ludicrous. Some critics and viewers believe that the negative tendencies of billion-dollar corporations have been trumped up for dramatic effect. I have two answers for this. First, the drug companies are a metaphor for oil in a sensitive time when we're at war over oil. But closer to home, I work in biotechnology in Research Triangle. I can point you to several people with horror stories about Big Pharma. I'm not talking about the occasional mishap with drug research. I'm talking closed doors, forced firings, cover ups, customer deaths resulting from poorly manufactured drug products, the whole nine yards. Do I personally have experience with such malfeasance? No, or I'd be in a deposition somewhere. Do I believe the people -- highly respected doctors, researchers, psychologists, even ex-drug reps -- who tell me stories about dollar vs. human lives ratios? Yes. Is The Constant Gardener happening right now in Africa? Probably not. But to say that the movie is unfounded in reality casts a blind eye to recent history.
Finally, I'd like to rebut the notion that Tessa was unfaithful to Justin. She wasn't. The Constant Gardener is definitely unclear on some points of its story, but this is not one of them.
With respect to Le Carré, The Constant Gardener is an adapted work that exceeds its source. With Le Carré's twisty, tragic backbone, Meirelles's deft, bold direction, and Abberley's hands-on passion for the film, The Constant Gardener takes on its own life. Uniformly stellar acting seals the deal. Universal's DVD delivers a crisp transfer, enveloping audio, and succinct extras with little fat.
On the charge of environmental contamination, The Constant Gardener is found not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2006 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2006 Nominee
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 129 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Extended Scene: Haruma -- Play in Kibera
* Embracing Africa: Filming in Kenya
* John Le Carre: From Page to the Screen
* Anatomy of a Global Thriller: Behind the Scenes of The Constant Gardener
* The Constant Gardener Trust
* Alliance for Human Research Protection