Fernando Meirelles, the Academy Award-nominated director of City of God, succeeds in a new vision of cinematic excellence. Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz star as Justin and Tessa Quayle in Meirelles’ thriller, The Constant Gardener. Tessa is an activist working in North Kenya fighting for the underprivileged. Her murder and the dubious circumstances surrounding it, incite Justin on a quest to discover the truth. We learn that international interests are covertly testing dangerous tuberculosis drugs on sick Africans. As Marcus Lorbeer, played by Pete Postlethwaite tells Justin, “the pharmaceutical companies are as bad as the arms dealers.”
Based on the fictitious novel by John le Carre, The Constant Gardener is a gripping drama that searches to uncover the conspiracy behind the death of a diplomat’s wife. The critically-acclaimed Brazilian-born director uses similar subject matter in both his previous and current work which addresses issues of the underprivileged. The title comes from Sir Bernard Pellegrin when he says, “Some very nasty things can be found under rocks, especially in foreign gardens.” Justin finds out that Diprexa is the drug distributed to “dispensable” people in order to save money in R&D by drug companies. Corporate greed and murder paint a grizzly, yet insightful picture of current conglomerate ethics.
Meirelles uses lots of shallow focus, a love scene montage and nonlinear order to tell the story. The film is replete with stylistic touches. At a moment of tension, a mechanical hum rises sharply to dramatize the event. In the scene following Tessa’s death, Meirelles cleverly tints the scene a melancholy blue. The film is shot by Cesar Charlone, the Academy Award-nominated director of photography from City of God. Charlone’s shots include handheld, kinetic and expressive cinematography. Meirelles artfully manipulates the medium, such as in a creative transition when Justin is riding in a car. Justin’s car drives in real time while the background dissolves for ellipses of time. This juxtaposition of opposites (foreground in continuity, and background dissolves) pays homage to Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1946).
The odyssey to uncover the forces behind the insidious testing of Diprexa takes us on an emotional rollercoaster. At times it is humorous. An official somehow related to the conspiracy tells Justin, “For a diplomat, you’re a bad liar,” to which he responds, “I haven’t risen far.” At other times, the film is iconoclastic and forlorn. In a heartbreaking scene where a child is left behind on a plane taking off to escape from marauding bandits, Lorbeer says, “That’s the way it is in Africa.” Meirelles uses the love story between Justin and Tessa, and her death as the inciting incident in the film. Moving on and grappling with loss are intertwined thematic elements.
What makes the film so moving, however, is its relevant social commentary. One can’t help but think about the slavery, poverty, violence and disease which for centuries have afflicted the continent that gave birth to the human race. The Constant Gardener exposes how industrialized Western nations are scheming to profit from those wrongs. The implicit meaning of the film is clear. Mankind has an obligation to save and protect Africa.
John Funk can be reached at email@example.com.