The Constant Gardener
Reviewed 6 October 2005
The wife of a British diplomat in Nairobi is brutally murdered, and at first it looks like a crime of passion committed by a man Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz) was having an affair with. But Tessa’s husband Justin (Ralph Fiennes) suspects something else, something to do with his wife investigating drug trials. And the more the local police and British High Commission threaten him, the more determined he is to unearth the awful truth.
A gripping thriller that dares to confront truths we’d all rather ignore.
Tessa Quayle first meets Justin at a lecture he’s giving about foreign policy. She asks awkward questions about Iraq – Jeffrey Caine deftly bringing John le Carré’s 2001 novel up to date. The other students in the class groan and get up from their seats. They’ve heard all this stuff before. Next she’ll be on about Africa…
Justin is left floundering, unable to save her from embarrassment. His answer in the book – which he admits is “metaphysical fluff of the worst kind” – puts the story’s moral dilemma explicitly:
“You have put your finger on precisely the issue that literally none of us in the international community knows how to answer. Who are the white hats? What is an ethical foreign policy? […] When does a supposedly humanistic state become unacceptably repressive? What happens when it threatens our national interests? Who’s the humanist then?”Caine has trimmed the book considerably, cutting much of Justin’s detective work to trace his wife’s work and killers. He travels less widely, pursuing just one doctor – Pete Postlethwaite’s Lorbeer – not three. Likewise, the truth about Tessa’s “affair” is given early on in the film, in a throwaway line.
John le Carre, The Constant Gardener, pp. 158-9.
The struggle then is not to solve the mystery but to find proof of things already known or suspected, proof with which to change things. However, the revelation of both the drug trial scandal and the story’s chief villain are less subtly handled than in the book. The reduction also makes everything rather tidy: it’s all a conspiracy, not the end result of incompetence and human weakness.
On the plus side, the high-calibre cast is uniformly excellent. Fiennes and Weisz spark off each other, while Bill Nighy and Pete Postlethwaite vie to steal the most scenes. The film is peppered with nicely-played small roles. Hubert Koundé, in particular, lends Arnold Bluhm a nobility and wit that’s only guessed at in the book.
It’s also telling how Caine has cut back on the ex-pats. Ghita Pearson and Gloria Woodrow are only glimpsed in the film, where in the book much of the action in Kenya is from their perspective. We’re spared their filtered views not only of Justin and Tessa, but also of Africa. Where the book scrutinises the British diplomatic service, the film is much more about Kenya itself.
The stunning light and colour of Kenya, even in the shanty towns, contrasts with the drab greys of London and Berlin. The music is also very effective, and the sometimes-dizzying steadicam gives the film a documentary feel, crucial to its sense of realism. As they did with City of God, director Fernando Meirelles and director of photography César Charlone make setting as much a character as the cast.
It’s remarkable that the film was actually shot in Kenya itself, which shows how much the country has changed since the book was published. Democratic elections were held in December 2002 and – to many observers’ surprise – President Moi ceded authority to the victor, Mwai Kibaki. Yet crime and corruption remain widespread, the Kenyan economy weak. The drafting of a new constitution (hoped to limit presidential powers) led to violent confrontation this summer. The Constant Gardener is released as Kenyans prepare to vote on that new constitution.
There have been various, passionate efforts this year to raise awareness about Africa’s economic misery, imposed by western governments and multinationals. It’s a sign of the competence of everyone involved that The Constant Gardener never feels hectoring or self-righteous.