The Constant Gardener (15)

Written by John le Carré (novel) and Jeffrey Caine (screenplay), Directed by Fernando Meirelles
On general release from 11th November 2005

Reviewed by Adam Ford

We are living through very cynical times, and it is a truth almost universally acknowledged that there is something rotten in the boardroom. So if you are going to make a film about corruption, you have to offer a way out of the nightmare other than a shrugging of shoulders and a switching on of the X Factor. In The Constant Gardener, we see Africa as a middle class tourist might, through the disbelieving eyes of a western diplomat who scrabbles around Kenya as if the whole of the 'white man's burden' is on his shoulders.

Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) is a British embassy functionary who fumbles his way through political life like a Hugh Grant character fumbling through relationships. When privileged radical Tessa (Rachel Weisz) interrupts one of his dreary speeches, Quayle is blown off his feet by the fact that she actually believes in something. So they get married and go to Africa, where she is horribly murdered. The official story is that her black companion (Hubert Koundé) killed her in a crime of passion. But as we know, the official story is rarely true, so we go backwards and forwards in time to unravel the very much more sinister truth.

Director Fernando Meirelles first came to the world’s attention in 2002 with the groundbreaking City Of God. Here he uses the same kind of whirling camerawork and chop editing, but with far less impact. The Kenyans are relegated to the role of onlookers and bystanders, almost looking like part of the scenery in many shots. Yes, these are real people, but the only individuals that this film seems to care about are the poor little rich people and their pathetic, tacked-on romance. Quayle tells us that he can‘t go home because “Tessa was my home", and it rings agonisingly hollow.

When John le Carré wrote his novel of the same name, he had researched a real-life case where the drug company Pfizer had knowingly used an unsafe antibiotic to treat meningitis in Nigeria. It might have been possible to correct problems with the drugs, but that would have cost money and handed an advantage to rival companies. Le Carré hinted that such abuses are endemic to the profit system, and even penned an article in the Daily Telegraph about 'The Criminals Of Capitalism'. In the hands of screenplay writer Jeffrey Caine, this potentially radical message is diluted into what feels like a two hour advert for the white wristband brigadiers who recently diverted energy from any potential challenge to those criminals.

The Constant Gardener will probably rival Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter for the limousine liberal vote when Oscar time rolls back around, but a film from the unsentimental perspective of the actual victims would have been far more intriguing. Unfortunately, history is never written by the losers. That’s endemic to the profit system too.

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