The Constant Gardener

I have to admit that I haven’t read many of John LeCarre’s books. But from what I’ve been able to collect from reviews and other people’s comments he does for spy novels what Patrick O’Brian does for sea novels. He puts a sophisticated nuanced story with psychologically realistic characters in a setting traditionally reserved for action oriented potboilers. LeCarre also seems to have something to say. His stories railed against the excesses of the cold war and when that ended, he turned his anger toward other targets. In this case the combination of greed and indifference that has turned much of Africa into a living hell.

So, does an increase in the quality of the source material translate into better movies? Surprisingly, in LeCarre’s case, anyway, it seems to. I’ve never seen it but The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is very well regarded. The Russia House is a great film and one I always point to when people try to tell me that Sean Connery always plays the same role. The Tailor of Panama is another film that got very good reviews.

Likewise, the buzz for The Constant Gardener has been excellent. The story concerns Justin Quayle, (Ralph Fiennes) a low level British diplomat in Kenya, who cares more for his garden than his job or even his activist wife, Tessa (Rachel Weiss). She spends most of her time with a Kenyan doctor, digging up evidence of a vast conspiracy involving a major drug company and both the Kenyan and British governments. The drug company is testing a drug meant to cure a virulent strain of tuberculosis. Unfortunately, it has deadly side effects, which, if known would force the company to go back to the drawing board, thus losing them valuable time and billions of dollars. They make a deal to test the flawed drug on African peasants. It becomes necessary to bury bodies where they’ll never be found.

When both Tessa and her partner are murdered, Justin begins to delve into the conspiracy himself and as a consequence grows closer to his dead wife, even as he approaches the awful truth. The story unfolds in skillful flashbacks, which creates a facsinating retrograde love story.

Fernando Mierelles directs with the visual flair he showed in 2002’s City of God. Here it is used to good effect. The tinted scenes, the stopping down until only the white birds flying the fomation are seen, the blood read shores of Lake Turkana, and the liberal use of a hand held camera give The Constant Gardenera distinctive look that subtly adds to the emotions on screen.

And the emotions are there. Plenty of good performances are turned in by solid English character actors like Danny Huston, Pete Postlethwaite, and Bill Nighy. But above them are the two leads, Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes. Weisz demonstrates that she is more than just an action film chick. Her Tessa is a firebrand who has trouble keeping her mouth shut and her behind out of trouble. She’s also not afraid to venture into morally ambiguous territory to get what she wants. This could be a performance that sets Weisz’s career on a new path.

Ralph Fiennes is a talented actor, but one who has trouble showing us his inner emotions. That cool British reserve of his is hard to penetrate, from either side, I imagine. Here he gets the job done. Mind you, playing a repressed Englishman may not seem like much of a stretch for Fiennes, but he finds depth and meaning to the character’s journey that not many other actors could have dredged up. The scene where he finally lets it go is devastating. It’s his best performance since The English Patient.

The film isn’t perfect. There is a political agenda here and the film strays into outraged self-righteousness a couple of times, especially towards the end. Also, the visual effects while being effective most of the time, occasionally get in the way. But for the most part this is top notch storytelling. And when you combine that with a powerful message…well, you may as well reserve your tux for Oscar night now.

Most of all, however, this movie has made me want to read more John LeCarre.

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