At first glance, this film’s synopsis looks like a classic mystery thriller:
In a World Where Nothing Is What It Seems,
One Man Investigates the Tragic Death of His One True Love And Uncovers a Worldwide Conspiracy. Ralph Fiennes Is: THE CONSTANT GARDENER!
Cue the chases and shoot-outs, right? Hardly. “The Constant Gardener” revolves around a complex plot, but it isn’t driven by it. Most of all, this is a character piece, an unusual love story that deals with complex issues, both personal and socio-political.
Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a mild-mannered British diplomat more concerned with tending to his plants and flowers than with the ills of mankind. He might be working in northern Kenya, but Africa remains an intangible to him, something flashing by outside the car’s windows while he drives from his house to the British High Commission. His wife Tessa is the very opposite, passionate about not only experiencing the world around her but also about doing all she can to improve it, even if she has to step on a few toes. What are these two doing together? The answer remains elusive, even more so after one of the movie’s casual flashbacks shows us how they meet. She comes off like a hysterical activist, while he’s all about diplomacy, which she doesn’t give a damn about, not when it means little more than providing public relations services to governments while they go about their dirty business behind closed doors.
Still, they somehow hook up, share wonderful moments, quickly get married and get pregnant and, sometimes in the midst of all that, end up in Africa. “We can’t involve ourselves in their lives” is Justin’s motto, but Tess can’t close her eyes. With a local doctor friend, she travels through the country, listening to the people and discovering that pharmaceutical companies might be testing drugs on poor Africans with AIDS. She keeps this secret from her husband but, after she’s killed, Quayle finds out and decides to finish what she started, establishing a bond with her that they didn’t have while she was alive
As you can see, this is definitely not your conventional thriller. Justin isn’t an almighty hero righting all wrongs, and said wrongs aren’t super-villain evils, it’s everyday stuff about money and politics. The payoff is not saving the world, it’s getting to a point where you at least give a damn.
“The Constant Gardener” features one of Ralph Fiennes’ finest performances, in which he starts out quiet and stoic, underplaying every emotion, but he gradually lets his guard down and opens up to the world, guided by the haunting memories of his wife and truly falling in love with her now that she’s gone. And as portrayed by Rachel Weisz, we can easily relate to why the loss of that woman would hit him so intensely. I wasn’t a big fan of her before this, associating her mostly with the klutz she plays in the Mummy flicks, but I am now! As Tessa, she’s warm, fiery even, displaying a fascinating blend of righteous indignation and naïve hope, intelligence and irreverence… She’s Kate Winslet-great in this role, and that’s saying a lot.
There are numerous effective supporting players (notably Danny Huston, Bill Nighy and Pete Postlethwaite), but the third lead of the film, which deserves equal billing with Fiennes and Weisz, is Kenya itself. Director Fernando Meirelles wisely chose to shoot most of the film in actual Kenya, using many local crew workers and thousands of Kibera (the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa) residents as extras. When Tessa walks around and is accosted by flocks of children enthusiastically showing off all the English they know (“How are you? How are you? How are you?”), for instance, it’s all the more touching because it isn’t staged, these are real Kenyan kids and they’re greeting her like they would any mzungu (white outsider); this isn’t a movie moment for them, it’s life.
Meirelles and cinematographer César Charlone, who previously worked together on the absolutely stunning Cidade de Deus, have an amazing skill at capturing fleeting moments like this, conveying the energy, the colours and the soul of a place in a visually exhilarating way, even though -or maybe because- they’re often shooting on the run, almost guerrilla filmmaking-style.
“The Constant Gardener” could have been a by-the-numbers affair, using Africa only as exotic scenery in which movie stars made love and ran away from gratuitous explosions, but Meirelles, Weisz and Fiennes clearly had their heart in this project and put every effort in making it sincere, thoughtful and realistic throughout. Which makes the contrived coda feel particularly off-key on top of being peculiarly similar to the one in Cruel Intentions– I’m surprised they didn’t play Bittersweet Symphony while they were at it!