The Constant Gardener, Focus Features’ new thriller, plays like the grim, dour counterpart to this year’s earlier globetrotting adventure film, Sahara. Both films pit socially conscious heroes against rapacious corporations exploiting Africa’s poor.
But while Sahara offered jocular summer escapism, Gardener is self-serious, solemn, and intricate. Yet it suffers from an identity crisis–it is both a gripping, gritty thriller and a didactic anti-corporate tract for government intervention and contrarian liberal activism.
Based on the novel by John Le Carré, Gardener presents a world of ineffectual bureaucrats, shady government dealings, and sinister corporate empires, all of which act with sneering disregard for the human consequences of their actions. One of these bureaucrats is Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a British diplomat with the High Commission. A reticent, passive member of the British elite, he falls for Tessa (Rachel Weisz), a fiery activist who displays a progressive zeal he cannot muster. After the couple moves to Africa, Tessa begins to investigate the development of a new tuberculosis drug, but when she dies under suspicious circumstances, Justin must unravel the surrounding conspiracy.
As in director Fernando Meirelles’s debut film, City of God, which took on Brazilian child gangs, Gardener revolves around the plight of destitute slum dwellers, and once again Meirelles’s direction marries neorealist grit with hyperactive editing and showy camera work. Meirelles is fascinated by the hum and flurry of daily life; here, using long, handheld takes that track through bustling but often grimy African streets, he paints a world marked both by squalor and vivacious liveliness.
Zipping back and forth in the timeline between scenes that occur before and after Tessa’s death, Meirelles expertly navigates a labyrinth of intersecting plotlines and characters, weaving it all into a brooding, conspiratorial tapestry.
That it’s all so engaging is due in large part to the performances. Fiennes gives Justin equal amounts of submission and hesitance, always hinting at some barely concealed disappointment in his own inability to act. He is a consummate diplomat, so utterly reserved that when he’s told of Tessa’s death, his only reaction is to express concern over how hard it must have been to deliver the message. His attraction to Tessa is obvious: She is blunt and confrontational in ways that he admires but cannot bring himself to be.
In many ways, it’s that conflict–the perceived weakness of diplomacy and first-world guilt–that drives the film, for at the edge of every frame hovers a partisan appeal to a bevy of liberal causes. Chief among these is the depravity of pharmaceutical corporations, which are portrayed as callous monoliths, profiting from “the tuberculosis market” and willing to cover up product-related deaths with murder and blackmail. Unsurprisingly, the film totally ignores pharmaceutical companies’ important role in developing life-saving drugs.
Hardly a scene goes by that isn’t laden with a thick syrup of anti-corporate bile. Over and over, the film harangues viewers with the idea that profit is stubbornly at odds with human good. Pharmaceutical companies are accused of controlling governments, and businessmen are demonized with morally superior glee. The corporate nasties who populate the film resemble cartoon villains more than real people; they are indulgent, vulgar, violent, racist brutes, and nothing more; they conduct their ugly business over golf and expensive dinners while wearing carefully tailored suits–and just so we know beyond any doubt that they’re Very Bad Men, they smoke too!
Government, on the other hand, only meets criticism for not being active enough. Tessa wants the bureaucrats to tightly regulate the drug companies, demanding more rules and restrictions, without considering how regulation hampers production and development, thus keeping beneficial drugs from those who need them.
If the capitalists are the villains, then Tessa is their impossibly angelic opposite, a headstrong activist whose immaturity passes for “idealistic” virtue. Tessa’s introduction comes as she stands up at a lecture Justin is giving to a room full of diplomats and makes a simplistic, emotional appeal against the war in Iraq. Justin, lacking any substantive ammunition to retort, calls her outburst “courageous.” Later, a pregnant Tess, without any hint of irony, talks about naming her child Che. There’s no debate here, just self-righteous leftist grandstanding.
The film isn’t content just to trash capitalism; it also has to take potshots at every other supposed evil opposed by the liberal elite. A missionary doctor is said to be “a good man, except that he pushes God with the pills,” as if his faith is plainly an undesirable trait. The same doctor later conflates drug companies with weapons manufacturers, yet another on the list of malevolent corporations. In a ludicrous moment totally external to the plot, Tessa throws a fit when her husband uses pesticides on his plants, never mind that pesticides save both lives and crops.
With The Constant Gardener, Fernando Meirelles planted the seed of a great political thriller, but rather than cultivating it, doused it with a bucketful of lefty fantasy. With roots planted firmly in the tradition of great espionage cinema, and aided by Meirelles’ directorial flair, one might have expected more–but this garden is full of weeds.
– Peter Suderman is assistant editorial director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.