Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Constant Gardener (2005) Film Review
The Constant Gardener
Reviewed by: Sarah Artt
As befits the director who delivered the slums of Rio to the world, The Constant Gardener is filled with compelling images of poverty. The camera lingers in close-up on ragged children and open sewers and, where City Of God was filled with jump cuts, The Constant Gardener forces us to look at what are undoubtedly real shantytowns. This is not the Africa of Ousmane Sembene's Moolaade, idyllic, but for certain cultural practices.
The part of Kenya that we see is so poor it proves a paradise for the most unscrupulous of drug companies, as Pete Postlethwaite's wayward missionary tells us: "Big name pharmaceuticals are right up there with the arms dealers." Despite the theme of activism and investigation that drives the plot, this film still feels wrapped around the line uttered by Sir Bernard Pellegrin (Bill Nighy), "Lots of nasty things live under rocks, especially in foreign gardens."
Even though Pellegrin plays the sort of slightly silly, but nonetheless sinister, diplomat whom, I suspect, still makes up much of the Foreign Service, his words describe how we make films about Africa in the west. Since this year's G8 summit, Africa has been in the eye of the world media. Consider the release of Hotel Rwanda, The Interpreter, even Sahara, all films that depict Africa as a place of danger, horror and conspiracy, but also incredible beauty.
The Constant Gardener also attempts to communicate the pull of Africa, a fascination that spurred centuries of colonialism and that continues to drive diplomats, political analysts and aid workers today. The Dark Continent is still seen as a foreign garden, but now that garden is subject to a different kind of protection. Now, we want to protect Africa from ourselves.
Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) begins the story as a low-level diplomat to the British High Commission in Kenya. Giving a lecture in London on the idea of diplomacy, he is accused of "being paid to apologise" by Tessa (Rachel Wiesz). Their antagonistic meeting dissolves into mutual attraction, which swiftly becomes a whirlwind romance. Tessa asks Justin to take her to Africa, and he agrees.
Heavily pregnant and now married, Tessa becomes the firebrand of the diplomatic community, using her considerable charm to fearlessly accuse the heads of major drug companies, who conduct trials without consent on poor Africans. When she and her colleague Arnold (Hubert Kounde) produce a report, she persuades Sandy, the High Commissioner (Danny Huston, at his oily, predatory best), to send it to London through the official channels in the hope that it will receive attention. What it does instead is ensure that Tessa is under surveillance.
When she and Arnold fail to return from a trip up country, their tortured bodies are soon discovered. Suspicion mounts as rumours circulate about Tessa's infidelity and the true nature of her work. Justin, previously unaware of his wife's activities, attempts to complete her task, travelling back to Britain under the eyes of the diplomatic service and even sneaking back into Kenya under a false passport. His realisation of the depth of the conspiracy Tessa had uncovered leads to his reconciliation with her memory and her love of Africa.
Fiennes, Huston and Kounde are excellent, but it is Wiesz who steals the movie, as the mercurial Tessa. The acting and dialogue are quite astonishingly intelligent and well done. If there is anything to complain about, it is the bombastic score that seems to be made up entirely of African drumming, or dramatic crescendos of grief.
This is an ambitious film for Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, who has been catapulted from the creatively independent, tightly budgeted, close-knit world of South American cinema into the public arena of a full on Hollywood blockbuster. As it is, The Constant Gardener has "Oscar bait" written all over it. Were it to win, this is a decision I could live with, mainly because Wiesz as Tessa Quayle is the kind of woman I would want to be: difficult, intelligent, committed to her cause, fearless.
The Constant Gardener is a superb thriller, inventively shot and sufficiently stimulating, in terms of its issues and characterisation, to provoke plenty of post-cinema conversations.Reviewed on: 07 Nov 2005