This review was updated on August 16, 2005.
If Bob Geldof were a film director, he would undoubtedly aspire to make a movie very much like “The Constant Gardener.” Topically urgent and ripe with outrage over injustices visited upon the African poor, Fernando Meirelles’ screen version of John le Carre’s incisive novel succeeds in capturing the book’s essential themes and concerns, albeit in a hectic style that could not be more antithetical to that of the literary master of international intrigue. By opening the film domestically Aug. 31, prior to the September wave of top tier festivals, Focus Features, backed by undoubted critical support, should succeed in establishing this high-minded, well-cast drama as the first significant specialized attraction of the fall.
Although untempered anger seethes from all 560 pages of le Carre’s best-selling 2001 novel, it is channeled by the author’s acute ability to release it in precisely modulated quantities through the cracks in his characters’ fastidiously rendered British diplomatese. Le Carre uses the sharpest of scalpels in performing a comprehensive sociopolitical autopsy on the remains of a murdered young woman whose provocative discoveries threatened to explode the hypocrisies, lax ethics, betrayals and assorted other ills of international pharmaceutical giants and government bureaucracies — Western and African — that support the use of Third World populations as guinea pigs.
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Meirelles, working from a script by Jeffrey Caine, has managed to arrive at basically the same destination as le Carre, but via a very different artistic road. Employing the same helter-skelter style that brought vibrant immediacy to his international hit “City of God,” on which Meirelles collaborated with Katia Lund, helmer employs in-your-face camerawork to bring the Kenyan locations intensely alive; at the same time, the rapid-fire approach is nothing like a visual correlative of the elegant relentlessness of the author’s style.
Simply put, this film will probably not suit the tastes of fans who considered the sublimely nuanced miniseries “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” “Smiley’s People” and “A Perfect Spy” the ne plus ultra of le Carre screen adaptations, but will likely please younger, less classically minded auds just fine.
In this telling of the powerful tale of a mild-mannered, middle-level English diplomat who falls more deeply in love with his wife as he stealthily searches for the truth about her life and death, the pic sacrifices emotional connection at the altar of political expose. With the instincts of a muckraker, Meirelles tilts “The Constant Gardener” in the direction of a docu-drama, which gives the “revelations” of corporate greed and corruption modest but important priority in the overall shape of things.
Ralph Fiennes does some of his finest screen acting right off the bat with his quivering but controlled reaction to news of his wife’s apparent death. Pic wisely retains le Carre’s cinematically non-linear narrative structure, which adroitly delivers the backstory of the relationship between middle-aged old-school diplomat Justin Quayle (Fiennes) and his live-wire younger wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz), just as it delineates Justin’s increasingly perilous search into the whys and wherefores of her murder.
Thus, the couple’s first round of joyful sex just after they meet in London is juxtaposed with Justin’s identifying her body after it has been found in a remote part of the country. As the story’s strands are extended in impressionistic, from-the-hip style, the portrait emerges of an emotionally contained rep of Her Majesty’s Government whose impassioned mate becomes a loose canon once she observes first-hand how new drugs are being used and tested on unknowing Kenyans, some of whom die as a result.
The thicket of corruption, both complicit and implicit, active and passive, runs the gamut of the administrative, business and medical communities. It is the mandate of the British High Commission in Nairobi to foster economic opportunities for Brits, hence the wide path cleared for thuggish but knighted tycoon Sir Kenneth Curtiss (a terrifically vulgar Gerard McSorley), who looks to enlarge his fortune with the wonder-drug Dypraxa, whichhas not been approved in the West.
When Tessa, who has lost her own baby in childbirth, witnesses the withering away of an African woman who has taken the drug, she relentlessly campaigns to expose the dangers of Dypraxa and the layers of malfeasance that foster its use. It’s an effort in which she is joined by a sharp young African man, Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde), with whom she is widely assumed to be conducting an affair and who is initially blamed for her murder.
Upholding the status quo of understated decorum and hidden white mischief are, among others, acting head of the High Commission Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston), aging spy Tim Donohue (Donald Sumpter) and their Foreign Office boss Sir Bernard Pellegrin (Bill Nighy), all of whom are rightly alarmed by Tessa’s bulldozing confrontationalism and, after her death, are forced to deal in their own ways to Justin’s taking up her torch.
Justin’s journey first takes him to London, where he meets with Ham (an excellent Richard McCabe), Tessa’s effusive and crucially helpful cousin. A subsequent luncheon with Pellegrin makes for one of the film’s best scenes; the exclusive club setting forces Meirelles’ camera to sit down with the characters and allow le Carre’s terrific skill at ever-intensifying one-on-one dialogue exchanges to flourish onscreen.
Posing as a journalist in increasingly intrepid mode, Justin travels to Germany, where he obtains crucial information and is beaten to within an inch of his life. Now as undaunted as his late wife, he returns to Kenya to confront those he’s concluded were most directly responsible for Tessa’s death, then on to a besieged village in southern Sudan where he believes he will find both his own heart of darkness and release.
Thesping is first-rate, even though they sometimes seem to be fighting an uphill battle not to be upstaged by the backgrounds Meirelles obviously finds so enthralling. Fiennes is ideal as the ineffably polite diplomat who only after his wife’s death can fulfill his own potential for love and passion for a cause. Weisz equally seems to have stepped straight from the pages of the book onto the screen, as she fully embodies the driven, lusty, unstoppable Tessa.
Nighy keeps his customary wild streak in check to register memorably as the guardian of the gate for the diplomatic corps, and Pete Postlethwaite socks over his crucial role as the mystery man Justin eventually must track down. Huston somewhat overdoes the sinister aspects of a diplomat who tries to conceal the depth of his involvement in the case.
Despite the book’s ferocious criticism of Kenyan government corruption (the specifics of which are significantly reduced in the film), to its credit, the nation’s administration approved shooting there, and Meirelles has gone all out to portray the country in close-up, from the exclusive digs of its foreign compounds to the stupefying squalor of the Kibera shantytown. With lenser Cesar Charlone and production designer Mark Tildesley leading a production crew that reps Kenya as both striking and squalid, pic takes full advantage of its location and roving camera.
Claire Simpson’s cutting, which in its persistent use of visual shorthand recalls her background with Oliver Stone, facilitates the telling of a complex tale in a reasonable length of time, while Alberto Iglesias’ score blends with select outside tracks to offbeat, understated effect.
End credits note location shooting in Manitoba, but Canadian scenes didn’t make the final cut.