It’s a rare treat when a movie explodes your expectations, defying the conventions and boundaries of genre, taking you places you can’t predict and eliciting emotions you didn’t expect to feel. The Constant Gardener is the best of the recent slew of movies made by westerners that explore lingering colonial prejudices and homicidal indifference to the fate of Africans. Films like Stander, Hotel Rwanda, and The Interpreter all had earnest, noble aims, and each succeeded in some important ways, but none of them is as complex, thoughtful, and ultimately wrenching.
The surprising thing is that the film is based on a John le Carre novel, which might lead you to expect a typical international thriller, spy vs. spy in gloomy London and dusty African villages. But this is post-Cold War le Carre, and the writer’s interests have broadened to include duplicity and moral laxness on a wider stage. The story opens with two mysteries for its protagonist, Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), to solve. His wife, a British aid worker in Kenya, has been raped and murdered in a remote area while on a trip of vague purpose. At first it’s assumed to be a crime of passion, then a hit taken out by Justin due to her rumored infidelity. Rather than pausing to mourn, Justin sets out to discover not only why she was killed but also who she really was and if she ever truly loved him.
Fiennes gives a spare, elegant performance as the quiet, unprepossessing Justin. He’s an unambitious mid-level British diplomat, a stiff-upper-lip stoic who’s perfectly content to toe the company line unquestioningly. His wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz) is his opposite, a strident, impassioned seeker of social and environmental justice who has alienated Justin’s stuffy colleagues and generated prurient rumors about her close relationship with her fellow aid worker, Belgian-African doctor Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde). The dichotomy may seem a bit simplistic — the film subscribes to the old-fashioned notion that men are guided by logic and reason while women are led by emotion — but it’s clearly on the side of the women. As one character says, “Adam was God’s first draft. He got it right with Eve.”
Justin is so impassive that when his colleague Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston, with an erratic English accent) takes him to identify the body, it’s Sandy who lurches and vomits and Justin who comforts him. The sight leads Justin into a flashback about his first meeting with Tessa: She stands up after a diplomacy lecture he’s delivered in place of his boss, Sir Bernard Pellegrin (Bill Nighy), and launches into a frenzied broadside against Justin and the entire British government for its complicity in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Embarrassed by her fervor, the rest of the students (audience? the context is unclear) scatter, leaving Tessa to apologize and Justin to realize that he’s found something remarkable in this earnest young woman. After what appears to be little more than a one-night-stand, Tessa reappears at Justin’s office, insisting that he take her with him on his new posting in Kenya, whether as his mistress, his girlfriend, or his wife. “We hardly know one another,” he replies, to which she insists “You can learn me.”
The casualness of her proposal combines with other details to make us wonder whether Tessa ever really cared about Justin at all or if she was using him as a ticket to Africa. Justin’s flashbacks tell us a lot about how he loved Tessa, but she remains largely opaque for the film’s first half. We see that she has noble goals, that she felt she had to go to Africa to work with the sick and the hungry, but it’s implied that she may have felt her ends were sufficient to justify any means and that she was perfectly comfortable using her sexual allure to help accomplish her goals. That certainly seems true when Sandy flashes back to a scene in which she offers him the use of her body in exchange for a look at a letter she suspects may be the smoking gun revealing the British High Commission’s complicity in a serious of dangerous drug trials. Tessa has discovered that a corporation is testing an experimental tuberculosis vaccine on the Kenyan villagers, which they accomplish by requiring them to take part in the study in order to get the treatments they need. She’s compiled a report on the trials, which she threatens to release to the public unless the British government forces the corporation to halt them. They dismiss her as a dangerous leftist nut and attempt to suppress her report. Justin is left wondering just what she found and if it was what led to her demise.
Tessa herself is a more compelling enigma than the circumstances of her death. The Constant Gardener is a rare murder mystery in which the victim is more than a body and the mystery is less who killed her than who she was when she was alive. Affable, distracted Justin knows Tessa little better than the audience does, and the journey he begins after her death is far more about finding the truth about her than it is about finding justice. He feels that he’s failed Tessa by not understanding her better, by allowing her to keep so many secrets. His investigation ultimately reveals information about Tessa and facets of her personality that he had been too inattentive to notice while she was alive. What he discovers is complicated and moving, the richest part of the film.
The Constant Gardener is structured so that we learn the truth about Tessa as Justin does, with each flashback or discovery offering up new clues to her true nature. Weisz, an actress who has been getting more and more interesting since she got those silly Mummy films behind her, plays the role with careful ambiguity, allowing us to project our changing suspicions onto the character until the truth is finally revealed. It’s a smart, delicate performance, keyed precisely to the necessary middle ground.
Like Justin, director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) has higher priorities than getting to the bottom of Tessa’s murder. He’s focused on the marital relationship and on the relationship between the British and the Kenyans that keeps alive the ugly legacy of colonialism. Though he maintains enough tension that the film’s thriller elements are never quite boring, they are downplayed to keep the focus on the emotions. Rather than getting your heart racing, the investigation sequences induce more of a low-level sense of dread and paranoia.
The film is full of elements that could be cliche but are played against our expectations. Though on the surface Justin is that action-movie staple — the man with nothing left to lose — he’s too passive and contemplative a figure to conform to the typical role of a vigilante; what he’s seeking is closure, not revenge. (The constant of the title refers less to habit than to steadfastness and loyalty.)
It’s in his exploration of the human issues that Meirelles shines, thrusting the plight of the powerless Kenyans in your face, showing how the greed and indifference of the west turn poor, hungry, uneducated people into so many human guinea pigs. As in City of God, Meirelles employs his grainy film stock expressively: using a green tint to point up the Brits’ avarice; vibrant color for the Kenyan villages, which have the spirited, energetic quality of lives lived so close to death; and cold grey for stodgy, morally bankrupt London. He makes the most of the bleak beauty of the African landscape, especially in the scenes at the spot where Tessa was killed, in which high-contrast film brings out the complementary reds and greens (blood and money?) of the terrain.
Though the movie may seem arty and self-conscious, it’s a visceral, emotional connection that Meirelles is aiming for, an identification with the taciturn, self-effacing Justin, who learns the dangers of his indifference, and with the unlamented millions of Africans dying from malnutrition, disease, and global apathy. The film is not only a challenging emotional experience but a call to action, though Meirelles isn’t heavy handed. This is literally a very quiet film, one that forces the audience to pay close attention and make the connections themselves. Meirelles puts the implications on the screen and allows us draw our own conclusions.
Will most of western society continue to ignore the plight of one-seventh of the world’s population? Probably, but no one who has seen The Constant Gardener will sleep quite as easily.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
The Constant Gardener / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()