An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: The Constant Gardener (2005)
PUBLISHED: 17:36 14 June 2018
Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different
The Constant Gardener; dir: Fernando Meirelles; starring: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite, Gerard McSorley, Archie Panjabi. Cert: 15 (2005)
John le Carré made his name writing about The Cold War – a time of diplomatic brinkmanship between the West and the Soviet Union, a terrifying game of bluff and double-buff, of spies and spymasters, moles and turncoats.
His books like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People were swiftly turned into hit films and critically acclaimed TV series. But, for those thinking that le Carré would be lost for source material once the Berlin Wall came down was seriously mistaken.
Le Carré instead turned his attention to the equally shady goings-on between governments and multi-national business corporations. Le Carré neatly side-steps from the world of military espionage into political and industrial espionage, worlds, it turns out, which are unsettlingly alike.
This is the world of The Constant Gardener, a world which appears to be calm and civilised on the surface and yet just beneath the calm exterior lies a complex web of international deals and corrupt political opportunism that, at times, will leave wondering how we continue to function.
City of God director Fernando Meirelles brings a rigorous austerity to the film which could have been preachy and full of self-righteous grandstanding in tackled in a more Hollywood way. Instead you are allowed to develop your own sense of outrage as the facts are slowly revealed.
The film is told through the eyes of an unassuming, rather naive, British diplomat Justin Quayle (Fiennes) who is quietly going about his diplomatic duties in Kenya when his social activist wife Tessa (Weisz) goes missing.
They are a couple where opposites attract. Quayle is happiest just pottering around in his garden, creating his own small world, while Tessa wants to go out into the world and make her mark and hopefully make it a better place.
It swiftly becomes clear that Tessa has probably been murdered and Quayle, confused and spurred on by grief, is forced out of his insular garden and into the real world, as he tries to find some answers.
Along the way he discovers something about himself – he’s rather tenacious when he puts his mind to it and he is also fairly resilient because he also uncovers things about his wife he never knew. More importantly, he uncovers the conspiracy she was trying to expose which linked African poverty, Aids, a shocking lack of morality by the British government and drug company greed in a callous plot to make a another fortune for people who were all ready rich.
It’s clear that Tessa was silenced for what she discovered and before long Justin’s colleagues (Huston and Nighy), a company owner (McSorley) and a spy (Sumpter) are all warning him to stop digging.
The film is constructed by le Carré as a spy thriller and it works brilliantly as one but Meirelles wants it to be more than that, as with City of God, he wants his audience to think. Meirelles is not interested in lecturing, but he shows you what is happening and lets you take it away with you. This approach is aided by César Charlone’s exceptional cinematography which contrasts London and Kenya, Quayle’s quiet garden retreat with the rough and tumble of the Africa that Tessa knows.
Both Kenya and London are shown to be noisy, bustling places, packed with people, and governed by self-interest and yet, for all that, there is a sense of majesty about the images that Meirelles and Charlone conjure up.
Much of the film is also told in flashback, so although Rachel Weisz appears to be written out early, she is a continual presence and we discover a lot about her, as Quayle retraces her footsteps.
Both Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz are superb. Fiennes does intellectually sharp but emotionally repressed like no-one else while Weisz is the embodiment of passion and action. It is her fearlessness which ultimately proves to be her undoing.
The supporting cast are great as well, bringing some much needed colour, context and indeed humour to the story. The film is never simplistic which is what makes it so satisfying and which allows you to return to it time and again.
It is a complex combination of espionage thriller, political drama and a tale of loss and romantic self-discovery. It’s one of the most gripping and powerfully moving thrillers to have graced the screen in a long time. It is satisfying grown-up, less austere and more human, than many of le Carré’s other works. Everything in this film fits together perfectly.