Late August/early September is usually a time when studios unleash their least appealing leftovers, so itís quite unusual to find a movie as intelligent and engrossing as The Constant Gardener hitting theaters on Labor Day weekend. Ralph Fiennes stars as British diplomat Justin Quayle. He is married to Tessa (Rachel Weisz), a passionate activist who is especially concerned with relief efforts in the most poverty-stricken areas of Africa. She goes off to the country a lot, her doctor friend in tow, yet never really tells Justin what sheís doing. One of Justinís colleagues, Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston), comes into the office one day with news that a white woman was murdered on an African road. The description of the vehicle matches the one Tessa was riding in.
After identifying her body, Justin is determined to figure out who killed Tessa and why. He journeys to Africa and begins asking questions. Almost immediately, it becomes clear that the same people who stopped Tessa from asking these same questions are now trying to stop him as well. Through the discovery of memos, e-mails, and video footage, Justin learns that Tessa was taking on a major pharmaceutical company that has been unethically testing a new drug on impoverished Africans. The trail is more complicated than that, however, as other entities are conspiring (intentionally or not) to protect the pharmaceutical company. Justin is, at times, surprised by the people he encounters who present obstacles to his investigation. After following leads through Africa, he meets up with Marcus Lorbeer (Pete Postlethwaite), who puts the last piece of the puzzle in place. Interestingly, Tessaís murder ultimately seems to be less of a direct hit than the result of a multitude of people all acting in their own self-interest.
The Constant Gardener very clearly launches a missile at the pharmaceutical industry. Does this type of testing really occur? Hard to say, but the film undoubtedly levels the charges in way thatís not hard to believe. And whether it does or not, the story (adapted from a John LeCarre novel) nevertheless shows how modern business conspiracies operate. Favors are called in and self-serving alliances are made between companies, governments, and individuals. What results is often an unholy union that may do more harm than good.
The movie is also about a marriage. Tessa appears frequently in flashbacks. The first time we see her, she is at one of Justinís lectures. She passionately takes him to task for his views. Rather than being resentful of Tessa, he is admiring of her integrity. They go for coffee and immediately fall into bed. Itís clear that there is a meeting of the minds going on; while they might not always agree, they are attracted to one anotherís desire to make a difference in the world. As Justin investigates his wifeís murder, his feelings for her grow even stronger. It becomes clear that she was trying to fight for the welfare of innocent people. He realizes that she was an even more incredible person than he realized. There have been lots of movie marriages but this is one of the most authentic Iíve seen in a long time. You totally understand what drew these two people together and made their union work.
The Constant Gardener was directed by Fernando Meirelles, who also made the brilliant City of God. He brings a visual and editing style to the movie that makes Justinís journey feel dangerous and urgent. Meirelles cuts the story so that it frequently jumps around in time, sometimes following Justin on his mission, other times showing fragments of his relationship with Tessa. The technique works beautifully because, even though Tessa is dead, she remains the driving force of the story. In one scene, she begs Justin to give a ride to a family she met while getting medical treatment at an African hospital. He refuses, saying that the trip would take them out of their way when she should be getting home to rest as soon as possible. Tessa points out that this is ďone family who we can help right now.Ē Later in the film, Justin has the exact same conversation with someone else, except heís on the other side of the argument. This is an instance where the director uses a non-conventional style of telling the story in order to make the greatest possible impact. At every moment, we feel Tessaís presence changing her husbandís world view.
I was compelled by the movieís depiction of this impoverished region of Africa. Justin quickly learns that, while the local police force gives the outward impression of authority, the whole place runs on a system of bribes. Inherent in the story is the idea that lawlessness is rampant but disguised. When local officials indiscriminately choose money over the best interests of their citizens, the problems that already exist only get worse and harder to change.
Thereís a lot going on in The Constant Gardener, but the first-rate performances anchor it nicely. Ralph Fiennes is excellent as the initially subdued, by-the-book diplomat who ultimately learns that rules must sometimes be bent in order to fight corruption and oppression. Every bit his equal is Rachel Weisz, who doesnít get the credit she deserves for being one of our most important actresses. Weisz balances out mainstream Hollywood fare such as Constantine and The Mummy with ambitious performances in independent pictures such as Confidence and The Shape of Things. Sheís perfect as Tessa, oozing stubbornness in the face of injustice. I canít wait to see how her career continues to progress. Hopefully her work in this film will lead to an Oscar nomination.
The plot in The Constant Gardener is very complex. You have to pay close attention to follow whatís going on, and there were a few moments when I thought things could have been spelled out more clearly. Nevertheless, this is one of those rare movies that feels genuinely alive; itís about something substantial and there wasnít a moment when I wasnít involved. Everything leads to a haunting final scene Ė not a plot twist really, but a natural extension of the theme that makes perfect, sad sense. It may have come at the tail end, but this is one of the best movies of the summer.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Constant Gardener is rated R for language, some violent images and sexual content/nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 9 minutes.
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