Part love story, part splenetic rant over the unholy union between corporate greed and political corruption in post-colonial Africa, John le Carré's absorbing, if baggy, 2001 thriller, The Constant Gardener, is set in a barely fictitious Kenya under the dictatorship of President Daniel arap Moi, where charlatans of all stripes link hands to exploit a desperately poor populace. Though he's a deft and nuanced creator of characters he identifies with, le Carré (like the filmmaker Mike Leigh) can be a petty caricaturist when it comes to the rich and powerful, whose linguistic and physical tics he lampoons with effortless, not to mention endless, reams of malicious prose. Gripping though it is, The Constant Gardener is in dire need of a loving, fearless editor, and it has found one in Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, who made the feverish Rio de Janeiro slum melodrama City of God. A superb stylist who fell disturbingly in love with the frenzied extremity of his subject in that movie, Meirelles seems, on paper, exactly the man to bring out the worst in le Carré—his reflexive paranoia and simplistic contempt for all things American, industrial or upper crust—while slighting the writer's immense gifts as a realist interpreter of character. It's a fate that, with the exception of the masterful television adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979), has overtaken almost every attempt to film the author's work, up to and including John Boorman's wispy The Tailor of Panama (2001).
The Constant Gardener, though, is a smart, beautiful piece of storytelling, attentive to le Carré's broad intent, while boldly taking a knife to his more egregious longueurs. You can never go wrong casting Ralph Fiennes as a nerd, and the actor is terrific as Justin Quayle, an effete British diplomat coasting in his midlevel job while indulging his two passions—a lush garden and (more passively) a young activist wife, Tessa (played by the luscious and intelligent Rachel Weisz), who haunts the slums of Nairobi looking to help wherever she can and bugs the stiffs at the British High Commission to get behind her efforts. As the movie opens, Justin is devastated by news of Tessa's brutal murder in an isolated rural outpost, and the disappearance of Dr. Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), her African traveling companion and rumored lover. The movie zigzags nimbly back and forth in time and place, setting up, with tender sensuality, Justin and Tessa's counterintuitive union. There's a little of le Carré the ambivalent, equivocal son of a con artist in Justin, and perhaps more of le Carré the late-blooming lefty crusader in Tessa, who's also loosely based on Yvette Pierpaoli, the French human-rights activist to whom le Carré dedicates his novel. Justin and Tessa make up an unlikely union of opposites, and as the diplomat sets out to find out who would want to kill his wife, their marriage is posthumously cemented, and Justin finds himself ever more possessed of Tessa's strength and persistence. He's going to need it, for as this febrile thriller picks up speed, he finds himself caught in a web spun by a bizarre coalition involving high-level Kenyan government, British officials and a drug corporation that promises treatment to thousands of AIDS-afflicted Africans on condition they take a tuberculosis vaccine in the early stages of clinical trials.
Meirelles clearly shares le Carré's rage against the machine, but he and screenwriter Jeffrey Caine artfully nudge the point of view in Africa's direction. It's a fine aesthetic move: Meirelles has a sense of place at once visceral and lyrical, and the same skills that went into making City of God such a blast show up in his Nairobi slums, which, though hardly sentimentalized, teem with vivid life and movement, their luminous yellows, oranges and browns glowing in sharp contrast to the glum gray-green murk of London. (Though it's in London that Justin lunches with the desiccated, ominously evasive High Commissioner Sir Bernard Pellegrin, who's wonderfully underplayed by the great Bill Nighy in what is one of the movie's funniest and most insidious scenes.) Focusing on Africa is also an astute political shift that takes the edge off le Carré's glib Western patronage of a poor old powerless Dark Continent that can only be saved by crusading whites. Though The Constant Gardener is far from dewy-eyed about the enormous internal and external problems faced by sub-Saharan Africa, it's animated by a sense of agency and excitement that's palpably missing from most Western discussions about the region. As for Justin, by the end, he has discovered in himself a way to keep faith with his wife and a place, however briefly, to call home.
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THE CONSTANT GARDENER WAS DIRECTED BY FERNANDO MEIRELLES; WRITTEN BY JEFFREY CAINE, BASED ON THE NOVEL BY JOHN LE CARRÉ; PRODUCED BY SIMON CHANNING WILLIAMS. OPENS WED. COUNTYWIDE.