The winding journey of The Constant Gardener

Joseph Fahim
10 Min Read

CAIRO: For decades, Africa s role in Hollywood was restricted to a mere backdrop of picturesque exotic locations. Classics like Out of Africa, King Salmon s Mines, Mogambo and The African Queen told typical stories centering on white characters, with the native Africans playing stereotypical supporting roles. Never has a movie of that period dared, or rather had the interest, to look beyond the beautiful scenery and the unique imagery of the continent.

Some may claim that the black continent, being placed in such a context, evolved into a full character with distinctive spiritual and artistic dimensions. But in reality, such a character was generally shallow and inferior, and those dimensions were nothing more than a pretentious attempt by many filmmakers to look important and give their hollow stories depth.

The turning point in Hollywood s relationship with Africa didn t occur until after the events of 9/11, when Hollywood began to open its eyes and take note of the world outside its borders. Africa s former role in American films has grown both unbelievable and unacceptable amid the social and political unrest. In 2004, Hotel Rwanda, the first serious film about Africa, was released to great acclaim from both the public and the critics.

The success of Hotel Rwanda encouraged other filmmakers to present more serious topics about the continent and examine sensitive, controversial issues that Hollywood used to refrain from in the past. This resulted in no less than five films released last year discussing various issues concerning Africa. The most successful, highly profiled film out of this group is Fernando Meirelles cinematic interpretation of John Le Carré s The Constant Gardener.

The Constant Gardener begins with the murder of Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz), a political activist and the wife of Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a British diplomat on an assignment in Nairobi. Tessa s disfigured corpse is found in the Kenyan crossroads along with her black driver Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé). Justin, despite his profound grief, seems to be composed, with a touch of concealed, unjustified bitterness on his face. An earlier scene indicates that Justin was not aware of his wife s whereabouts and preliminary evidence denotes an affair between Tessa and Arnold, resulting in a crime of passion. Despite Justin s contradictory feelings of loss and suspected betrayal, he decides to investigate his wife s death, unintentionally unearthing the malpractices by major Pharmaceutical companies on the continent.

The Constant Gardner is the follow-up to director Fernando Meirelles outstanding City of God, which is now regarded as one of the landmarks of contemporary South American cinema. Similar to everyone who loved City of God, I was looking forward to seeing The Constant Gardener. In addition, the sole notion of seeing Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz reunite on screen after their spectacular turn in the underrated and little seen Sunshine was another bonus for me. Somehow, however, I was slightly disappointed.

The film is part love story, part political expose in the form of a thriller. One of the major problems of the film is that the love story comes as the stronger, more alluring components of the story, with complex, unusual characters and relationships. Tessa appears to be the larger, more fascinating riddle of the film that both the audience and Justin try to solve throughout.

Tessa and Justin appear to have nothing in common at the outset of the film; he is courteous, she is furious and strong-headed; he is discreet and peaceful, she is outspoken and a hell-raiser; he is thoroughly indifferent to everything outside his own neat little world; she is an activist with a dangerous, fearless attitude that threatens to wreck her life. It appears very unlikely for a couple with such grave differences to have any kind of relationship. The key scene though in deciphering Tessa and Justin s bond comes after the first time they make love, when she tells him that she feels safe with him. Tessa may indeed be a complex, hard to figure out person, but her feelings are simple and very true.

Rachel Weisz, in her career-making role, plays a character we constantly doubt throughout the film, has incredible sincerity. There are some moments in the film when we start to believe that Tessa might be no more than a cheating, hateful and mildly mean wife to her honest, loving and kind husband. But it is this genuis and compassion Weisz brings to her role that forces us to ultimately feel Justin s grief over a woman he hardly knew or understood and, as a result, to regret for ever doubting her intentions.

Justin, on the other hand, is as clear as a blue sky in springtime. He s an un-ambitious, quiet and fairly lethargic man whose central concern in life is tending his garden. Yet he is also caring and forgiving, and so it is hard to condemn his apathy or lack of empathy for both Tessa and the Kenyan poor. The only interesting aspect of Justin s gradual transformation from his current state to a person who is no different than Tessa, is watching Ralph Fiennes in one of his most revealing roles. I can t recall seeing the great Mr. Fiennes previously playing a fragile, emotionally open character like Justin. Fiennes always succeeded in hiding his characters passions and true personas behind his stoic face and dark charm. In The Constant Gardener, he peals off all those layers and presents a character that lost all its reasons to live.

The major problem of the film is the political/moral aspect of the story. The story s chief antagonist is the major profiteering western Pharmaceutical companies that sacrifice the lives of thousands of poor forgotten Africans every day and crush the souls of many others who might endanger their profits. Director Meirelles not only condemns those companies, but also the greedy British government and the corrupt African authorities. This is a rather intriguing theory that, nevertheless, is not remotely original or unfamiliar. The course of events of the thriller aspect of the film is all too predictable and the tiny details that are supposed to be illuminating and outrageous are, in fact, small, already acknowledged facts. In addition, the villains, with their common Hollywood mannerism and vague excuses, are never believable enough to generate strong feelings about them and consequently take actions toward the real cause.

I can t deny though that I was impressed again by Meirelles impeccable direction. As in City of God, he uses a non-linear narrative style, going back and forth between events and resulting in a deeper, more heart-shattering effect. The film is also visually stunning. Never has Africa been portrayed in a more realistic, grittier way. The part of the film that is set in Africa was actually shot on real locations in Kenya and many scenes between the actors and the Kenyans were improvised. Meirelles produces his biggest visual impact though through the juxtaposition of the sunny, pulsing and humble slums and deserts of Kenya with the British luxurious, untroubled and soulless world.

I am not sure if I should recommend The Constant Gardner or not. The film does have good intentions and both the acting and direction are superb. But it never succeeds to engage us like Hotel Rwanda in its primary subject matter or ignites a valid debate afterwards. I have to recommend the film, however, because it is a good one regardless of its drawbacks; just don t expect another Hotel Rwanda.

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