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John le Carre #2: “The Constant Gardener”

September 30, 2012

As BAM continues with its showcase of movies based on John le Carre novels, here’s another old review I did of one of the movies featured in the showcase, Fernando Meirelles’ adaptation of The Constant Gardener. This is another reprint of an old review; I’ll include some pictures and add some additional thoughts after the review.

When the Cold War ended, most thought spy novelists would go the way of the dodo. This seemed a strange thought, since while the Cold War may have seemed black and white, there was in fact a lot of gray area, and the best spy novelists have visited that gray area. Also, the world itself was to turn into more of a gray area, as no one knew what the new rules were, yet people in charge insisted on still following the old ones. John le Carre, who came to prominence with The Spy who Came In from the Cold in 1963, has doggedly pursued how the world has changed. Sometimes, he’s been less than successful, but his compass, both literary and moral, has mostly been straight and true. The Constant Gardener, as a book, is a good example, and now, in the hands of director Fernando Meirelles and writer Jeffrey Caine, it becomes a good example as a movie as well.

Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) when he first falls in love with Tessa (Rachel Weisz).

As with the novel, the movie is about Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes). Justin is a British diplomat in Kenya, and loves nothing more than to putter around in his garden. That is until he meets Tessa (Rachel Weisz), a firebrand activist who hounds him at a speech he gives in London about British policy in Iraq. Afterwards, she apologizes for being so forward, and the two become attracted to one another. Though they are an odd match – she’s the fire to his ice – they seem to work together, and when she pesters him to let her accompany him to Kenya, he can’t say no. While he serves as a bureaucrat, she is tending to the children of the country (even while pregnant herself, though she loses the baby), with the help of Dr. Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde). It is Bluhm who is found murdered with Tess early on in the movie (the relationship between Justin and Tessa is told in flashback), and the supposition is the two of them were more than just colleagues. Justin’s friend and boss Sandy (Danny Huston), who also loved Tessa even though he opposed her politically, tells him to forget about it and move on, as do all of Justin’s friends. Justin, however, can’t help but recall how Tessa in particular was railing against the Three Bees, a pharmaceutical conglomerate she suspected was up to no good in Africa. And to make up for not listening to her in life, he’s going to let her guide him as he goes about trying to find out who was really responsible for her death.

Like most (if not all) le Carre novels, this deals with betrayal; like most of his best novels (The Spy who Came In from the Cold, The Russia House, The Night Manager), the hero is trying to atone, in one way or another, for betrayals he has already committed. Justin feels he also was responsible for Tessa’s death by not listening to her tirades against the government and Three Bees. And while being a diplomat, he knows he alone can’t bring down both of them, he at least can get some justice for himself by fulfilling her mission. Of course, there’s betrayal on many levels; the betrayal by Three Bees of the West of Africa (le Carre implies in a postscript to his novel the situation is far worse than even he described), and the betrayal of Tessa by certain key people, like Sandy and Lorbeer (Pete Postlethwaite), a doctor who knows more than he’s telling. Of course, this is a combination of the personal and the political, and oftentimes, one side wins out over the other, with the movie suffering as a result. Here, however, Meirelles and Caine find a perfect match between the two.

Quayle confronts Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston)

I was not a big fan of Meirelles’ previous film City of God. While it was technically dazzling, I felt it lacked the heart of, say, Pixote, which also concerned itself with the less fortunate in South America. This film also wears its technique on its sleeve, but I think it fits better here. True, this is another film that shows Africans mostly as tribes-people, but Meirelles gives the continent a buoyant energy. You can easily see why Tessa is drawn here, and feels entirely at home. And if there is a heart of darkness, it’s only because the West created it. Also, the hand-held camera and over-the-top editing reflect, I think, Justin’s growing anger and shame about Tessa’s death. Meirelles and Caine also juggle the many threads of the plot (le Carre always has rather convoluted plots) brilliantly.

The performances, of course, are a big boost. Thanks to the Mummy movies, I always find myself underrating Weisz; she proved in Runaway Jury, for example, she could hold her own with Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman (and even better them). Here, she proves she can handle an almost impossible role (Anthony Lane rightly described it as “two parts Naomi Klein, three parts Sophia Loren”) with equal aplomb. Many reviewers have been critical of Huston’s performance, but I found him spot on as someone whose actions were reprehensible but whose feelings were real. And Bill Nighy (as the head of the British Foreign Service) and Gerard McSorley (as the head of Three Bees) are both terrific as the bad guys. But Fiennes is the one who holds it all together. This is not one of his stereotypical brooding roles. Justin is someone who is cowed yet charmed by the world around him, especially when it comes to Tessa, and yet he must summon reserves he never knew he had. Fiennes completely captures that, especially at the end. And without giving anything away, it’s nice to see a Hollywood movie that doesn’t compromise at the end. The Constant Gardener can stand both as a slam against misdeeds in Africa and a superior adaptation of a book by one of the best novelists working today.

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Bill Nighy as Sir Bernard Pellegrin, head of the Foreign Service

When Hotel Rwanda came out in 2004, my friend Owen said he hoped this would mean the end of movies about African problems that nevertheless had a white protagonist at the center of the story because of the notion Western audiences wouldn’t watch a movie about Africa without a white protagonist at the center of the story. What seems to have happened instead is Hollywood for the most part have stopped talking about Africa. The year after The Constant Gardener came out, there were three major English-language movies dealing with Africa: The Last King of ScotlandCatch a Fire and Blood Diamond. The first two were docudramas (the former about a Scottish doctor who became part of Idi Amin’s (Forest Whitaker) inner circle, the latter about Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke),  an oil refinery foreman turned revolutionary in 1980’s South Africa), while the third film, while fiction, was set against the backdrop of the civil war in Sierra Leone in the late 1990’s and how “conflict diamonds” were one of the causes of said war. Only Catch a Fire had an African as its protagonist (the main character of Blood Diamond was a mercenary played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and the African fisherman (Djimon Hounsou) he befriends in the movie is third in importance in terms of the movie behind DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly’s journalist character), and by coincidence, artistically, for me, it was better than the other two (though it too was flawed by not, if you pardon the expression, catching fire dramatically).

Justin with Lorbeer (Pete Postlethwaite) and one of Lorbeer’s patients.

Why does The Constant Gardener work for me while the other two don’t? Part of the reason is the white character at the center of the movie is interesting in of himself, rather than just a plot device. Admittedly, Justin Quayle is a familiar type in many ways – a person who refuses to take sides at first and then is forced to choose a side – but the way that transition is handled is logical both plot-wise and emotionally. Second of all, unlike The Last King of Scotland, the movie never lets Justin’s story overwhelm the tragedy of what’s going on in Africa. Also, unlike Blood Diamond, Meirelles’ film doesn’t try to sanitize its message in any way by either tacking on a happy ending (Three Bees does run into quite a bit of trouble, but you can tell this isn’t the end of things as far as they go). Meirelles also does a better job of delineating the other characters so they aren’t ciphers, which makes the ruthlessness of some of them all the more chilling as a result. Finally, as I said in my earlier review, while it does take a well-worn tack in showing Africa, the movie at least makes all of the people it shows seem alive rather than stereotypical. Certainly, I wish there were more movies about Africa that had Africans at its center (like Invictus or, on TV, the criminally short-lived made-for-HBO series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), and of course it would also be nice if more movies by Africans about Africans made it to these shores (the last one that I know of was Bamako, which was interesting if problematic. Still, even given the type of movie it calls to mind, I think The Constant Gardener works on its own.

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