The Constant Gardener

| August 26, 2005

The Constant Gardener, the latest offering from director Fernando Mierelles (City of God) is at the same time spare and complicated, hopeful and troubled, like Africa itself.
Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) is a quiet career diplomat. He appears to be doing well enough in his career, but not pushing any boundaries, and definitely not creating waves. During a public address he is buffeted with questions by passionate activist Tessa (Rachel Weisz), and far from being put off by her badgering the pair end up together, first for the day, the night, and then in marriage.
Justin and Tessa depart for his new assignment in remote northern Kenya. The environment is roiling with leftover colonialism, big business, poverty, and grass roots activism. While Justin tends to his work, and ever his garden, Tessa throws herself into her new land. She and her physician companion Arnold (Herbert Kounde) spend days together traveling, going to conferences and digging further into the government’s relationship with the international pharmaceutical companies that have made Africa their laboratory. People start to talk. They talk about Tessa’s lack of propriety with local officials, and intimate that she is unfaithful.
Then Tessa is murdered. The doctor is nowhere to be found. It appears she may have become an inconvenience to a lover, and the other members of the consulate, particularly Sandy (Danny Huston) who is Justin’s superior. It seems a stroke of bad luck to the other members of the High Commission that Justin married such a headstrong girl, and not a terrible surprise that she ended up the way she did. Justin does not accept the infidelity scenario though, and sets out to find the real story behind his beloved Tessa’s death.
The story that becomes apparent reveals itself on two levels. Personally, Justin finds little comfort or support from his friends at the beginning of his loss, and eventually the tale twists and turns until a horrible betrayal becomes apparent. As he travels across continents following the trail of his wife’s murderer, Justin again and again runs up against bemused apologies. He’s just a really nice guy, and people take advantage of that. They also underestimate him, and far from resigning himself, he steadfastly plods forward, oddly unafraid of what he finds.
The other victim in The Constant Gardener is Africa. The colonization and subsequent independence of Africa’s nations left it violated and messy. When not forcing us to wince at the personal pain that Justin suffers, Mierelles uses big, open shots to expose Kenya’s painful beauty to flood the viewer’s eyes. Storytellers acting out AIDS education parables and sick people in line for drugs intermingle with shots of the savannah and children playing. In the end we find out that Tessa’s fate is a little bit of the fate of Africa. One by one people fall, victims one way or another to pay the price for having inadvertently wound up on a contested piece of property.
The most unusual thing about this film is the fate of Justin. Even though they are horrifying and disappointing, the plot twists in a John le Carré adaptation are to be expected. But single minded purposefulness is just not what one expects from the decidedly unglamorous Justin. But then it seems perfect for him. The same devotion and attention to detail that makes a successful gardener of the grieving husband make him a persistent sleuth. Over and over he shows that he is perhaps less a victim of a rushing river than something caught up in it to become part of the force. The Constant Gardener is an unusually artful tale of intrigue and takes the international thriller in a new direction.

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