Constant Gardener

 

Posted to www.marxmail.org on February 14, 2006

 

"Constant Gardener" is an adaptation of John Le Carre's 2000 novel. Although flawed in many ways, it is certainly worth seeing as another example of Hollywood idealism la "Syriana."

 

Starring Ralph Fiennes as Justin Quayle, a career-minded British diplomat who has never challenged authority in his life, and Rachel Weisz as Tessa, his much younger and more idealistic wife, it dispenses with the sort of moral ambiguities and contradictions of Le Carre's earlier and more successful fiction. Set during the cold war, "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" basically made the case that there was not much difference between the USA and the USSR. Since Le Carre was a career operative in the British MI5, this was a rather daring stance, especially when considered against the example of Ian Fleming--JFK's favorite author.

 

With the collapse of the USSR, Le Carre has shifted to the left and become a vocal critic of globalization, both in his fiction and in his journalistic efforts. As such, "Constant Gardener" is a sweeping indictment of the worldwide drug industry. After Justin and Tessa wed, she returns to Kenya with him where she becomes a kind of left-liberal version of Mother Theresa. In the opening scenes of the film, she announces to him, "Take me to Africa with you". When he asks her what she plans to do, she expresses no clear idea. Obviously, we are dealing with a certain kind of personality that has gravitated to NGO's. Since she is also the daughter of an Italian countess, the almost suffocating sense of 'noblesse oblige' pervades her character and the first third of the movie, when we see her dispensing AIDs medication to the natives.

 

For his part, Justin Quayle is content to tend to the garden at his diplomat's villa, clearly meant to evoke Candide's observation: "That's all very well, but let us cultivate our garden." In other words, it is a metaphor for disengagement.

 

After Tessa discovers that drug companies have been using the poor, unsuspecting and Black population  in a TB drug trial that often results in death, she goes on a crusade to expose them. She is murdered for her efforts. Le Carre's novel is mostly about Justin Quayle's attempts to discover who killed his wife and eventually complete her mission. Although she is present in a number of flashbacks, we encounter her more as a memory than as a character engaged with others.

 

In a bid, one supposes, to make the tale more accessible to mainstream audiences, screenwriter Jeffrey Caine makes Tessa a major character and devotes most of the first third of the film to showing her at work in the slums of Kenya and making love to Justin. This decision ultimately shifts the focus away from the novel's attempt to portray Justin Quayle's disillusionment with British "civilization," particularly in the way it uses native peoples as guinea pigs. The film represents this much more as an attempt to maintain his wife's place in his heart. Indeed, one never quite gets the sense that Fienne's character has really understood what leads corporations to murder.

 

In one of the key scenes of Le Carre's novel, Quayle confronts Pelligrin, his superior in the Foreign Office, with his knowledge of the drug companies' crimes and Pelligrin's complicity, at an elegant private club. This scene reveals Le Carre at his best, with biting ironies at the expense of the blueblood but degraded Pelligrin. In the film, it loses much of its cutting edge as Le Carre's narration falls by the wayside--as it inevitably must in any adaptation of a novel. Instead, we are left with the dialogue which as good as it is cannot convey the full dimensions of Quayle's breach with his class.

 

Since I was never impressed with Fernando Meirelles hand-held camera-work in "City of God," I was even less impressed with its deployment once again in "Constant Gardener." This Brazilian director seems an odd choice for a Le Carre film since his forte, such as it is, is in depicting panoramic depictions of urban squalor. Such jittery effects seem ill-placed here.

 

Although I have not read Le Carre's "Constant Gardener," I would have chosen another approach entirely. I would have dispensed with the Tessa back-story altogether and focused much more on the dialogue. One of the great films of all time dealing with crime and pharmaceuticals is "The Third Man," which is 90 percent dialogue. Since Graham Greene is obviously a major influence on John Le Carre, it would have made sense to choose a screenwriter and director who have been influenced by Carol Reed's masterpiece. Of course, such people do not exist in Hollywood anymore.

 

Whatever the flaws of "Constant Gardener," it is well worth renting from your local video store--especially in comparison with the garbage that is foisted on the public on a regular basis.