The Constant Gardener

The Constant Gardener

*****

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

The diplomatic service is a filter between truth and perception. The English are very good at it. "There are proper channels for these things," is diplospeak for, "Send us your report and we'll bury it."

The Constant Gardener is based on a novel by John le Carre from his post Cold War period, which does not exclude such old fashioned methods of control as assassination and commercial protectionism. On one level it is a murder mystery, with political ramifications, and on the other a love story, without frontiers.

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At the centre is a girl.

Although presented as an exposition of what multinational pharmaceutical companies are doing in Africa, the film's main concern is Tessa (Rachel Weisz) and why she died. Idealistic, instinctive, passionate and brave, she is not what the British High Commission in Kenya needs. As the 24-year-old wife of Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a junior diplomat - their courtship is an absurdly romantic episode that reaffirms the inability of a cautious man ("I hardly know you") to withstand the emotional onslaught of a woman who takes risks ("You can learn me") - she is seen by the powers-that-be as a potential nuisance who needs to be curbed.

In the same way that Princess Diana ignored official guidelines and followed her heart in matters of public duty and became in some quarters an embarrassment, if not a danger, to the arbiters of protocol, Tessa is not going to do what THEY expect ("If you stop me doing my work, I am nothing"). She goes out into the hinterlands with a black doctor to discover what the multinationals are doing to Aids sufferers, using them as guinea pigs for experimental drugs, while hiding evidence of fatal side effects.

Although Tessa's death occurs at the start - it is assumed that bandits up country attacked her Land Cruiser - she remains, through flashback and the power of personality, the film's focal point. Justin, the green-fingered team player, is not someone who likes to make waves, which is why he has chosen exactly the right profession. However, as he investigates Tessa's life, her relationship with the black doctor, the nature of her dying and the intricate involvement of his colleagues, he steps outside the circle of protection and becomes, himself, a threat.

What lifts The Constant Gardener high above other le Carre adaptations is the way in which Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles portrays Africa and how Jeffrey Caine's script shuffles emotion and time in this kaleidoscopic tale of deception and betrayal. The choice of Meirelles, who made City Of God with street children in Rio, was inspired. He uses the same techniques of fast-paced editing and handheld cameras to give a rough, intense feel to the film. His Africa is not a long shot of picturesque mud huts, nestling in a valley, surrounded by wild life and distant mountains, inhabited by proud young warriors and bare breasted maidens, but cluttered, noisy, dangerous outcrops of chaotic shantylife, not dissimilar to the favelas.

This is not a film that parodies the remnants of colonial rule in a country impoverished by corruption. It exposes what is loosely referred to as The Establishment, or, as they say in ex-public school enclaves, the old boy network, that has little time for women, let alone bees in bonnets.

The acting is achingly good. Weisz has now superseded Kate Winslet as the most exciting British actress on the international screen. Her intelligence, sex appeal and energy bring to Tessa an irresistible frisson. Fiennes has the harder role, that of a still man, driven to action by tragedy and doubt. He gives an infinitely subtle performance that slowly gathers respect.

Le Carre's title is misleading. The only gardening Justin does is weeding out lies.

Reviewed on: 05 Nov 2005
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A diplomat uncovers a web of deceit as he investigates the death of his wife.
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Read more The Constant Gardener reviews:

Sarah Artt ****1/2
Anton Bitel ****

Director: Fernando Meirelles

Writer: Jeffrey Caine, based on the novel by John le Carre

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Hubert Kounde, Danny Huston, Daniele Harford, Bill Nighy, Keith Pearson, Nick Reding, Gerald McSorley

Year: 2005

Runtime: 129 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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