In a world where the lives of people are interspersed and habitation in its most elementary form exists with a paradox of expectations in a world far removed from the former, we are introduced to a cast of characters that form the basis for a story that is enveloped in a veil of secrecy and deceit, emotions, the seven deadly sins, consciousness and lack thereof. On this journey, we are witness to scenes from a marriage that has all the earmarks of a relationship that defies the hands of time and the abyss of man-made machinations that would separate those involved and deny the existence of devotion and dedication, not only to themselves, but to their fellow man. Enter the world of The Constant Gardener.
Present day Africa, and in particular Kenya, are presented for our considerations. A continent that is teeming with poverty, illiteracy, AIDS, overpopulation and war, is a ripe breeding ground for pharmaceutical companies looking for plump and accelerating profits that are to be realized off the backs of those who are considered as expendable; throwaways; castoffs; those who will never be missed or cared about in the bigger scheme of things. It is precisely those schemes that will prove to be a major undermining for those in the know, but at great and grave cost to others who would attempt to go against the Goliath of big business and the governments that sleep with them
Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a low level employee of the British Foreign Service, is posted to Kenya, with his wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz). Tessa, with her leanings towards wanting to always bring the best to those less fortunate, is guaranteed to raise the hackles of those diplomats serving with Justin. While intially seen as a flake; someone not to be taken too seriously, through her research into the tuberculosis drug, Dytoxin, she manages to garner information of an ill-fated nature that will ignite a scandal of gargantuan proportions, if it can be processed by the 'right people' - those who have the power to light the fuse to eradicate the problem. What Tessa has not bargained for though, is the ability of the serpent to bite back, and take no prisoners in the process.
The Constant Gardener opens with a scene of complete innocence - a husband (Fiennes) seeing his wife (Weisz) off on an air flight, with promises of seeing each other in a few days. We are then jolted by images of a truck careening on its side on a water's edge; a wet and yet dry no man's land where only the sound of migratory birds fill the void. What has happened and why? All too sadly, the story will unfold for our perusal.
A short time later, Justin is told by his fellow worker and friend, Sandy (Danny Huston) that Tessa has been killed in the accident, and it looks, according to the British High Commission, as though her driver and friend, Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), has raped and murdered her before running away. What appears on the surface to be a horrible tragedy will blossom into a weed infested conspiracy that will reach from Africa to England to Germany, and in its wake, take many with it.
Ralph Fiennes is superb as Justin Quayle, a milquetoast who dots all the 'i's' and crosses every 't', just as generations of Quayles, who were picked for service to Queen and country for eons. As he observes, 'I haven't risen too high.' This actor speaks for a generation of people who strive to see quality not only in a film, but in a performance. Fiennes achieves this with an ability to draw the viewer into a whirlpool of emotions, some as simple as the raising of an eyebrow, the subtle draining of colour from his face, or a word spoken as calmly or as brutal as the case need be. The role is building a following that will hopefully culminate into an Oscar nomination for him; something that has been long overdue.
Rachel Weisz as Tessa gives a damn about the world and her fellow man. She knows it to be a dangerous place, but never envisions just how platitudes of subvention by the drug companies to prove with ferocity and conviction, all the while making the world believe that they are good and righteous. Weisz makes Tessa real. She doesn't suffer fools lightly. We feel for her and her dedication and for the love she so amply portrays with Justin, even when that love is questioned by Justin himself. She and Fiennes have chemistry; it's 'there' and it inspires us to care about what happens and just how and why things transpire the way they do. Weisz can be assured of a nomination for Best Actress for her inspired performance.
Danny Huston as Sandy is middle management; someone who strives to climb the ladder to collective success, but in the process pulls all the wrong punches, resulting in actions that transpire into a fall from grace with pounding repercussions. His performance is spot on. Compound this with Bill Nighy as Sir Bernard Pellegrin; oozing charm from every pore as he gives the 'offical' take on events that involve Her Majesty's government. We are asked to suspend belief as he waxes poetic to the public face of policies as expounded by the British, all the while maneuvering into the slimy recesses of backalleys to 'make the deal' that will prove most beneficial to him and his cronies. It's a Hobson's Choice as to which actor will be nominated, but wouldn't it be great to see them both recognized?
Director Fernando Meirelles has parlayed a human interest into a film that leaves us with questions, comments and sometimes unanswered discussions. He has entreated us entrance into a world that is passed over more often than not, and that is projected in the realm of 'out of sight, out of mind.' His tilling to illuminate our minds with a Pandora's box of 'what if's' and 'why nots' haunts our psyches with a seed that grows in a garden infested with weeds that must be thoroughly and absolutely eradicated through not only the medium of self-advocacy, but also through the collective efforts of voices that must and should speak for those not able to make themselves known in the larger scheme of things. He has allowed his actors to sing; to put their guts into this project and to make their efforts and the story, known to the larger audience of public opinion.
Cinematography by Cesar Charlone is fastidiously rendered, and the heat of Kenya is felt as keenly as was done by John Seale for The English Patient. Spiced colours for The Constant Gardener, cinnamon, saffron, paprika, sand, gun metal; meld as companion pieces with the coolness of England and Germany; the rain, cold, lush green of the land. The fierce intensity prevails as nuances from street scenes in Kenya are captured and seared into our brains; images of polluted streams, clogged with refuse and human waste, the miserable conditions of shanty towns that are juxtaposed with the greens of a golf course and the homes of British diplomats. Justin's own home echoes harbingers of his life in England with his attention to detail in his garden. Charlone notices just what makes a scene work without uttering a single syllable, and he paints his canvas with splashes of violence and calm, day and night, love and hate.
Music by Alberto Iglesias pumps the volume with native African songs that express the character of people seeking to further their way along a path that will hopefully lift them from a mire not of their own making. Corresponding themes for Justin and Tessa, the savagery of raids, and the interspersing of calculated images, round out a soundtrack that parrots the constant theme of this film; a multilayered set of tiers that possess the power to wrap us in a shroud of security, such as it may be.
If this film makes us sit up and take notice, to seek a considerable debate upon issues that have sunk their teeth into the reality that is human life since time immemorial, then it will have accomplished its mission. But, if we leave the theatre and consider what we have just seen as merely entertainment, then we are the losers, and we lose with a vengeance that will continue until someone has the voice to say, 'enough!'. Who will be that person, who will take the actions necessary to guarantee that life can and will change if we all just 'give a damn'?