Guys, bare with me on this review. It's a review of the film as well as a exposition on the issues that it brought up.
The Constant Gardener is a sophisticated political thriller adapted from John Le Carres novel of the same name. Its a thought-provoking look into the African situation that were guilty of trying to keep out of mind and out of sight. This conspiracy-thriller-cum-love-story follows a British diplomat in Kenya, Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) as he challenges all odds to find out why his wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz) was murdered on a dusty trail in East Africa.
The film starts with the end of Tessas journey, as her mutilated body is identified at a morgue in Kenya. The shock of his wifes death and alleged infidelity with a black doctor sends Justin spiraling. Faced with a prima facie case of a crime of passion between 2 lovers, investigators back off from digging into Tessas work with impoverished Kenyans and her concern in a pharmaceutical companys apparent humanitarian efforts.
Upon discovering illicit letters hidden away by Tessa, Justin is jolted into investigating the last few weeks prior to his wifes death. Like a robot, Justin reprogrammes himself from a mild mannered diplomat to a resolute man, driven by anger and his increasing doubts about the circumstances of his wifes murder that are being fed to him by his superiors. He embarks on a quest spanning Europe and back to the ends of the African continent.
Justin is increasingly uncomfortable with Tessas relationship with her confidant, Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kound), the black doctor with whom she shares her idealism and humanitarian efforts. This develops the suspense by showing us sequences that Justin wasnt privy to. As the film leads Justin down the wrong paths, it also builds immediate empathy for the increasingly well-rounded character.
Justins odyssey for answers forces him to look through the eyes of Tessa. He continues what she had started with her fervent efforts to aid the indigent natives, to search out clues, overcome dead-ends and weed out the red herrings. It compels his change to a reckless and ingenuous man on the precipice of a breakdown from his increasing paranoia. The discovery phase of conspiracy and the players in the film urge the momentum to gallop through to Fienness best performance this year (including his turn as a blind diplomat in The White Countess that is still being shown in cinemas sparingly).
Fiennes, although receiving fewer nominations than Weisz in various prestigious film awards (especially Weiszs nomination for Best Supporting Actress in this years Oscars), overwhelms Weiszs performance. His stark portrayal of a detached and pragmatic bureaucrat that becomes a driven and angry man in search of the truth is pitted against Weiszs Tessa, a hothead radical who strikes out at the worlds injustices with wild abandon and indiscretions.
The metaphor of Justins hobby, gardening, is used to describe his delicate personality. A world without weeds as Tessa puts it, is his way of keeping things perfect and controlled in his world, something that Tessas report on pharmaceutical drug testing in Africa turns upside down.
Its another feather in the cap for Focus Features and director, Fernando Meirelles after his sensational epic, City of God, which dealt with poverty and limiting environments that have stayed unseen from a bourgeois perspective. This film fits like a glove for his style of invoking sympathy and guilt for the surrounding that the characters have to immerse themselves in during their pursuit for truth.
The handheld style of shots put us straight into its colourful ambience and emotional state of its characters. Its fantastic cinematography in Kenya makes this one of the most arresting tourist-films this year as we are transported to lands many of us dare not find ourselves in. The visual palette represents the anarchy and bedlam in the northeastern regions of Africa. An inspired decision that heightens every nuance and emotion felt each time a sliver of information about Tessas death is released.
The soundtrack by Alberto Iglesias (again nominated at this years Oscars) is haunting and rapturous, ranging from the celebratory to the sombre. The rich and layered native music of the African region is scattered throughout scenes that supplements the films hard-hitting imagery.
The editing work is one of the finest Ive seen (no wonder it was nominated for Best Editing at this years Oscars) as the story constantly switches from past to the present. Its grim portrayal of Tessas and Justins future in the opening scenes makes the rare moments of joyful bliss in Justins memories become a bittersweet experience as we question their commitment to each other and their eventual fate.
Was he now or was he ever Tessas one true love? Or perhaps, he is just a victim of a callous woman set in her wild ways after the whirlwind romance that they shared was prematurely hampered by the tedium of marriage. Besides the questions that run through our minds, the one true constant in the film is the love that Justin feels for Tessa throughout the meandering and disjointed narrative.
The enigmatic structure of the novel was kept as it exposes a riveting and unfiltered view of a mans transformation into an avenging angel. Justin travels from country to country with a fake passport as he undertakes in cloak and dagger activities that result in him getting threatening messages left in his hotel room. Like a page out of James Ellroy and L.A. Confidential, Justins journey for truth is so banal that it ends up full of character. Its operatic in style as passion and intrigue from its twists plays a pivotal part in the story. Characters are not as they appear to be, as through flashbacks and episodic revelations, we begin to inch closer to the truth.
The films thriller aspect, although well done is dwarfed by the storys intrinsic need to reveal a greater truth than what happened to Tessa. It wants to show us a deeper and cutting view of life in Africa, one that we have heard about but never really wanted to know about. It wears its heart on its sleeve, as we need not question its motives of creating awareness in the region. The resonance of the story hits home with Meirelless sleight in creating an indomitable spirit within the Africans, while we are sucked into a maelstrom of unsettling actualities.
Its wildly determined efforts prod us to change and look at the smaller picture from a different point of view. It's a draconian, austere and verite document of greed and suffering. Its not just an African problem but also a human problem that we face. The truths it discloses are retching, always dreary with no sign of optimism in the horizon.
The post-colonial depiction of life in Kenya is striking, even if depressing. Extracting the story from Le Carres reservoir of political and socio-economic musings needed this film to have a highly literate and derivative dialogue that refuses to yield to the average moviegoer. However, the nature of Meirelless direction takes its cue from easily discernable shots of dying Africans and ravenous men in suits coupled with the top-drawer performances by its cast, making it a highly involving film.
Bureaucracy and responsible corporate governance are put under a microscope, its indifference and tolerance for the necessary evils are seen as the first step to more heinous and atrocious acts. Such as the reprehensible drug companies ravaging on the humanity and the freedom of unsuspecting Africans by offering insultingly little or nothing at all to Africans, setting a meagre price on their lives to further their profits in more civilised nations. The corporations perceived vested interest in the plight of AIDS-afflicted Kenyans is nothing more than a con to exploit them as cheap labour and more effective guinea pigs for their new drugs.
It leaves us with an eager and hopeful but rather weighty issue of whether this film featuring the bleak outlook of life in Africa, or perhaps life in general would reach out to our better angels. Or will this just be another film where a shameful and lurid reality is exploited to be observed by audiences in armchairs for entertainment?
Elegantly crafting a love story set in the contemporary world of global politics, Le Carres insights of the machinations of those involved could be construed as conjecture, although there is clearly a significant measure of reality in his concerns about the influence of multinational corporations and their capacity to wield their clout mercilessly among political circles.
Despite a specious storyline and absence of pretence, it still harks true to real-life humanitarian violations that have taken place in Africa. Pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer once administered a dangerous drug in Nigeria to obtain licensing for it after a ban in other continents when it was found that it caused arthritis. The results of the drug testing have yet to be released.
Unfortunately the film left me cold and cynical, with the realisation that there is no end in sight for the horrors faced in Africa. Has the reality of a dispensable human life finally put fiction to the sword?
The true gravitas of the situation, masked behind the lush Sahara, hits you in the final scenes of the film. It runs the full gamut of emotions as youre taken for a ride through grief then anger, and finally sheer horror. Not since Hotel Rwanda has a film kept me so emotionally invested in the lives of the characters and its resounding message if you can help one person, that's better than not doing anything at all.
Visit the ConstantGardenerTrust.org to improve living conditions in Kenya's slums.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Hope you enjoyed the review. I loved this film. There's just something sad about how the African plight is only brought up in mainstream media when it seems to have an underlying purpose. Like children and innocent lives being lost is not reason enough...