The Constant Gardener

Wow, Ralph Fiennes plays a good guy.

So, I watched Taken 3 on the plane to California and this on the way back. Doing so is oddly appropriate, because the two films, while sharing rather similar on-paper premises (man goes on a quest to find his wife’s killer), could not differ more in their approach to that premise. The Constant Gardener, for one, has an actual social agenda, and highlights the humanitarian situation in Africa in a somewhat sensitive way.

This film isn’t particularly interested in living up to its billing as a thriller. Instead, it builds up interest through narrative and cinematographic techniques that reveal the plot over a slow, constant burn. In that sense it resembles, in tone and pacing, other adaptations of John le Carre novels (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy is one that comes to mind). The emotional centerpiece of the film is diplomat Justin Quayle’s (played by Ralph Fiennes) relationship with his wife, Teresa (Rachel Weisz), an Amnesty activist investigating the details of a suspicious drug trial in Kenya. Teresa is found murdered in the veld, and Justin, who hitherto has been portrayed as a bit of a wallflower, becomes determined to investigate her death. In the process, he uncovers the conspiracy that resulted in her murder – the cover-up of a drug trial gone awry as it was tested without consent on human populations in Africa. Quayle is the constant gardener of the film – mild and deliberate, yet persistent in his quest. The film itself echoes its protagonist’s temperament in its slow, constant pacing, its careful exposition, and its unflagging care with respect to cultivating its emotional core, of showing the relationship between Justin and Teresa, telling us why it matters so much to Justin to pursue his mission to the ends of his ability. It’s not much of a thriller, but it is quite affecting in its own quiet, intimate way.

This is not an angry film about vengeance, nor is it a violent revenge quest. It’s a film about a gentle man provoked to anger, whose love propels him to complete the life’s work of his beloved, and in the process, find out things about her that he had never known while she was alive. To Quayle, his love finds its truest expression only after Teresa has died. It is profoundly compassionate and empathetic, and achingly sad. Such qualities, however, might be considered somewhat soporific, and I admit watching it on a long flight might not be the most optimal time to do so. Nevertheless, I respect the film for what it is, and what it does.

The film’s humanitarian message is a little muted, although this could be by design. We see the film through the perspective of Justin, after all, and while he is a diplomat in Africa, his occupation doesn’t afford him too much interaction with the locals. Although he initially has a distant concern for the often poverty- and disease-stricken lives of the African poor, it is abstracted, and somewhat reinforced by his shyness. As the film goes on, however, it seems that his sense of social consciousness awakens – it may be that he associates their conditions with the death of his wife, and his mission is just as much about saving them as it is investigating his wife’s murder. But the film never really elevates the African concern beyond a somewhat detached commentary on their conditions, amidst its more general charge about the evils of pharmaceutical companies and their reprehensible practices in unprivileged areas. They are elements of the landscape, of the physical tapestry in which the film takes place. Their presence makes the film rooted in a strong sense of place, but their inherent humanity isn’t quite fleshed out in the film. In the sense, they are more plot elements than characters. Then again, it wouldn’t be fair to expect too much of a film whose chief preoccupation is an inquest about love and its transformative power on people. And for what it’s worth, I thought that the film dealt with that aspect of Africa in a limited but sensitive way, a naturalistic, unembellished way.

The Constant Gardener is a weighty, moving and naturalistic film, full of soft-hued deliberateness and a quiet, developing sense of compassion. It’s a film to be appreciated in the right setting, and admired for its quiet courage, much like its chief character.

I give this film: 4 out of 5 dypraxas

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