LOVE. AT ANY COST.
What is it that a gardener does? He makes his garden grow. He tends to it, protects it. Whenever there’s a threat to his garden, like weeds, he quickly neutralizes it. The garden wouldn’t survive without him; it would destroy itself. Africa is like a garden and it wouldn’t survive without its gardener, the West, in this movie represented by the British. Is that the rather unpleasant metaphor author John le Carré was thinking about when he gave his novel about the modern exploitation of Africa its title? I don’t know, but it’s an interpretation.
This is a thriller about how the gardener still thinks he can do what he wants with the garden, even though his strength is failing.
Putting the pieces together after a murder
The movie is however marketed as a love story, and that is not a falsehood. There is a love story, one that is strong enough to carry the emotional power of the film. We are introduced to Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a British diplomat, who is told that his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) has been found murdered in Kenya. The grief-stricken husband slowly begins to put the pieces together. Tessa was a radical, an activist who found out that a major pharmaceuticals company was testing its new drug on the AIDS-infected population in African countries, fully aware of its possibly harmful side effects. People in powerful positions stood to gain from the future sales of this drug and couldn’t accept that a diplomat’s nosy wife tried to expose the dirty business. As Justin takes great risks learning more about it, director Fernando Meirelles also tells us the parallel story of the relationship between Justin and Tessa. They were an odd couple, a conservative diplomat and a left-wing student who fell in love, got married and went to Africa. There they did their best trying to help the poor people of the continent, but in such different ways that they decided not to interfere with each other’s agendas too much. Their marriage remained strong, although it was challenged by Tessa’s growing, obsessive commitment to the cause that would kill her.
This is a very convincing, moving love story and Meirelles tells it in a realistic, practical way; this is no Hollywood romance. As the ending comes and Justin finds out the truth about his wife’s death, we leave him in the wilderness waiting to reunite with the one person who made him give up everything. It’s a rare thing to watch a scene this haunting, resembling the ultimate expression of love and despair.
Achieving its emotional goals
You may think I have already told you everything about it, but this is a piece of cinema that has much to offer its audience. Writer Jeffrey Caine and the director hold the parallel stories together and achieve the emotional goals they set out for. Cinematographer César Charlone captures a wild, bright part of the world in all its beauty and starkness.
The cast is simply perfect. Fiennes and Weisz are a couple that looks like they have nothing in common, but they still manage to make us believe in their relationship; Danny Huston is appropriately ambiguous as their liaison in the diplomatic community and Bill Nighy is fun to watch as, shall we say, the villain of the piece.
Le Carré is famous for his spy novels, but this is something different. This tale shows us a writer genuinely upset about how lives mean nothing whenever unbelievable sums of money can be made. The relationship between the West and Africa remains tense. Is it possible to trust a person who one minute promises you to help, the next minute punches you in the gut?
The Constant Gardener 2005-Britain-Germany. 128 min. Color. Produced by Simon Channing Williams. Directed by Fernando Meirelles. Screenplay: Jeffrey Caine. Novel: John le Carré. Cinematography: César Charlone. Editing: Claire Simpson. Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Justin Quayle), Rachel Weisz (Tessa Quayle), Danny Huston (Sandy Woodrow), Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite, Hubert Koundé.
Oscar: Best Supporting Actress (Weisz). BAFTA: Best Editing.
Last word: “In the book there’s a lot of information on the pharmaceutical industry, and I even tried to include this in the script. Finally I decided to take it out. Sometimes John Le Carré stops telling the story, and he includes some reports on pharmaceuticals, some real cases from around the world. I was very impressed with all this information, so I tried to do the same in the script, [so] I added [to it]. Tessa would go to the computer and she would watch some documentaries on the pharmaceutical industry, but it really didn’t work so I took it out. I think my input on the script was really trying to bring the story to Kenya. Trying to bring all the scenes to the streets, to show [the] Kibera [Slum in Nairobi] and show a bit of the country. The first script was really a story of only Brits talking inside rooms and pubs. So I tried to bring the story outside, to see the country.” (Meirelles, About Film)