Film: The Constant Gardener

Since the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, the British novelist John le Carre (born David Cornwell) has been obliged to shift his primary focus from Cold War moral equivocation to more ordinary topics of leftist political correctness. Why Cornwell, a man who served with the British Foreign Service (both MI5 and MI6) in Germany—where he was betrayed by the notorious double-agent Kim Philby, and where he actually witnessed the erection of the Berlin Wall decided to take such an anti-Western attitude in his work is a matter for his family, his biographers, and his conscience. At any rate, the au courant protests of the past 16 years are no longer about cruise missiles and nuclear freezes; they’ve moved to globalism and multinational corporations. Thus the theme of le Carre’s novel The Constant Gardener (2000), recently adapted to film by the Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, is the murderous evils of pharmaceutial conglomerates.

Like the novel, Meirelles’s film tries to be a socially conscious political thriller with a motivating love story. It begins with the brutal and unexplained death of Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz) in a remote region of northern Kenya. The rest of the film deals with the powerful impact Tessa’s death has on her husband Justin Quayle, a mild-mannered, unambitious, midlevel British diplomat stationed in Nairobi—who would, it seems, prefer simply to work in his various gardens.

Along with intermittent flashbacks that reveal key moments in his relationship with his wife, the film follows Justin through the deadly clues that lead to the truth Tessa had uncovered before her death.

Le Carre’s earlier novels, whatever their tortured conclusions about the “complicity” of the West in the Cold War, were always well-plotted, suspenseful, and peppered with snappy dialogue. (The 1965 film version of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, with the brooding Richard Burton, still holds up well; as do the even better and less-equivocal BBC productions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy [1979] and Smiley’s People [1982], in which the impeccable Alec Guinness portrays le Carre’s spy-master, George Smiley.) Unfortunately, both The Constant Gardener and its reasonably faithful but uninspired screen adaptation by Jeffrey Caine are predictable, suspenseless, riddled with plot holes, and lacking in the pungently memorable dialogue that we generally expect from le Carre. This latter omission is especially disappointing since Meirelles has cast so many talented U.K. actors in supporting roles: Bill Nighy as the quintessential British diplomat, Gerard McSorley as the thuggish corporate executive, and Pete Postlethwaite as the guilt-ridden aid worker.

Despite these disappointments, it would still be possible to salvage the film with its motivating love story, but the relationship between the buttoned-up Justin and the free-spirited Tessa (she injects his life with “passion”; he makes her feel “safe”) is cliched and shallow. The audience is supposed to believe that Justin, in his search for the truth about the death of his wife, comes to understand her more fully and to develop an even deeper love for her. Unfortunately, all we actually see is a self-absorbed, wealthy young woman who eases her conscience by making facile political pronouncements about the war in Iraq, Vietnam, and the moral superiority (of all things!) of the United Nations. On the first day Justin and Tessa meet, she’s inexcusably rude to him in public, cries for her convictions, and then, after coffee, brings him back to her flat for sex (shot with frontal nudity). Then she uses Justin for passage to Africa, asking him to marry her so she can go to Kenya. Once she arrives, she continually embarrasses him in public, behaves like a single woman, and incites unsurprising rumors about adultery.

As she relentlessly pursues the truth about the experimental drug Dypraxa, she refuses to tell her husband what she’s doing, in order—so we’re expected to believe—”to protect him.” This is not only perfectly condescending, but it’s absurd as well since Tessa sends her evidence about Dypraxa to Justin’s superior in London. While we can admire Tessa for trying to expose the murderous abuses she discovers in Kenya, her relationship with her husband has little depth beyond both actors’ heroic efforts to overcome the script.

Finally, there’s the camera problem. In his last film, City of God (2002), Meirelles used an MTV-ish camera style to try to give a sense of the chaos in the poverty-stricken slums of Rio de Janeiro. The film was subsequently nominated for four Academy Awards, including best cinematography and best director. Although greatly overrated, City of God did give a sense of the tragic desperation and mindless violence in the Rio slums. Unfortunately, Meirelles, a former director of Brazilian commercials (in collusion with his Uruguayan cinematographer Cesar Charlone), decided to use the same cinematic style for The Constant Gardener. Thus the film is flush with jump-cuts, film-stock switches, out-of-focus shots, unjustifiable camera angles, and a nausea-inducing “jerky” style. These visual tricks, so popular in Hollywood these days (see Baz Luhrmann’s deconstruction of the musical with Moulin Rouge!), are not only visually irritating, but they actually date the films, just as rear-screen projection did in the 1950s and the zoom lenses did in the 1970s.

Back in 1961, le Carre’s first novel, Call for the Dead, was rightly seen as a gritty response to the fantasy James Bond spy tales of Ian Fleming, and the book was praised by Graham Greene. Greene himself espoused many fashionable, leftist political positions, including a similar moral equivalence about the Cold War. But he was also a Catholic convert; and, although an admittedly rebellious Catholic, his best writings—The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, and his original screenplay for The Third Man—always maintained a solid moral base that prevented those works from falling into stock liberal notions or simpleminded political propaganda.

The Third Man (1949), brilliantly directed by Carol Reed, featured Joseph Cotten, the magnetic Alida Valli, the never-better Trevor Howard, and Orson Welles in his finest screen performance. The Third Man, like The Constant Gardener, deals with death, conspiracy, love, and murderous materialism, set within a chaotic and highly politicized setting—partitioned Vienna after World War II.

The film also uses nontraditional visuals, impeccably shot by the great British cinematographer Robert Krasker, and it experiments with sound, particularly with its famous theme song, performed on the zither by Anton Karas. But Reed’s film, unlike The Constant Gardener, succeeds on every level, and it’s generally considered one of the best English-language films ever made. Significantly, beneath the performances, the music, the visuals, and the ever-suspenseful story, there’s a remarkable believability about the unexpected and rather desperate love of Holly Martins (Cotten) and the misguided yet unconditional love of Anna Schmidt (Valli). This, of course, gives the film a verisimilitude that The Constant Gardener never achieves, and it’s absolutely crucial because the central action in both films relies on love as its primary motivation.

The Third Man makes its moral points about black-market corruption in the politically charged environment of the Austrian capital without the platitudinal preaching of The Constant Gardener. Naturally, we should be wary of power—whether in governments or multinational corporations—and it might be feasible that a contemporary pharmaceutical company would maliciously abuse the desperate inhabitants of the Nairobi slums and Kenyan villages. And yet, it seems rather suspicious for le Carre to conjure up such a situation just to make politically correct points about the evils of the West.

  • William Baer

    William Baer is a graduate of U.S.C. Cinema where he received the Jack Nicholson Screening Award and taught in the Filmic Writing department. He currently teaches English and Film at the University of Evansville, Indiana and is a frequent contributor to Creative Screenwriting.

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