The Constant Gardener Movie Review

She's a bleeding heart radical who opposes the Iraq war and feels terrible about poor HIV-inflicted Kenyans. He's a stodgy establishment lackey working for the British High Commission who loves to mind his own business and tend to his gardens. Together, Tessa (Rachel Weisz) and Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) uncover an insidious plot orchestrated by pharmaceutical conglomerates in Fernando Meirelles' The Constant Gardener, a hybrid of '70s-era thrillers like The Parallax View and this year's pro-U.N. fiasco The Interpreter. Adapted from John le Carré's novel, Meirelles' follow-up to his critically overpraised City of God is a concoction of paranoia-drenched conspiracy theories and white liberal guilt over Africa that purports to sympathize with the plight of impoverished Kenyans, but whose real agenda is the vilification of evil Western corporations and the celebration of Africa-loving white martyrs. Infested with mournful close-ups of smiling indigenous kids, Meirelles' film demands that we feel both sorrow over Africa's burgeoning AIDS crisis and fury over the superpowers' sinister refusal to truly help. Primarily, however, his film cares no more about Africa than do the story's evil villains at make-believe drug company FDH.

Collaborating with his City of God cinematographer César Charlone, Meirellas once again fetishistically focuses on destitution and suffering, shooting his squalid Kenyan locations in grimy, slightly overexposed colors and with expressionistic camera angles, turning the beautiful landscape into a harsh pit of fluorescent yellows, rotting greens, stark blacks, and blooming whites. It's a phony-baloney (if striking) visual aesthetic that, when married to the director's rollercoaster-ish hand-held cinematography, provides a sense of both immediacy and self-conscious artistry. Yet no amount of stylistic showing-off can offset the ludicrousness of a love scene between Justin and Tessa - shot in downy hues, it looks like a L'Oreal commercial with excessive zooms - or the preposterousness of Jeffrey Caine's clunky, preachy script, which gussies up its straightforward mystery with numerous flashbacks but fails to confront its central issues of African poverty and corporate malfeasance with anything approaching a rational mind.

Tessa is working undercover to expose the truth about KDH's new TB medicine called Dypraxa, the on-the-ground trials of which are resulting in countless deaths which the company and the British government (in league with the drug bigwigs) want to conceal. It's a classic Big Brother-ish scenario in which the little guy struggles to expose the powers-that-be as malevolent criminals, but the plot's main conceit is that, because Tessa is mysteriously murdered at film's outset and is only seen in flashback, it is passive Justin who must unearth the conspiracy on behalf of disenfranchised African guinea pigs and bring justice to the continent. Part retrospective love story in which Justin falls in love with his wife (and undergoes an awakening of his social conscience) after her death, and part Christ-like tale of noble, selfless sacrifice in which Justin must risk life and limb to bring Tessa's revelatory Dypraxa report to light, Meirelles' film takes the stand of Bob Geldof's recent Live 8 concerts, which claimed to be about shining a spotlight on Africa yet were instead venues for narcissistic whites who believe that the only way to save Africa is through Caucasian intervention. Look at all the despondent dark-skinned natives, Meirelles' supercilious film asks of us, and now watch some decent, righteous light-skinned folks come to their aid.

That not a shred of blame for the continent's dire situation is placed on Africa's corrupt, homegrown governments reveals The Constant Gardener's unbalanced political agenda, but such disingenuousness is part and parcel of a film in which Pete Postlethwaite's Dr. Lorbeer says, without a trace of irony, "Big pharmaceuticals are up there with arms dealers." Embodying another repressed, emotionally closed-off Brit, Fiennes is pitch-perfectly stolid even as his character is forced into spy thriller-mandated car chases, and Weisz brings a measure of fire to the proceedings as holier-than-thou insurgent Tessa. The problem isn't one of performances, however, but one of condescension. In Meirelles' faulty equation, Africa is a mess because of Western businesses, and the only solution is the virtuous gallantry of Western do-gooders; Africans themselves merely function as helpless victims in need of rescuing. Somehow, I think it's the promotion of viewpoints such as this - and not the wheeling and dealing of big pharmaceutical giants - that exemplify Dr. Lorbeer's claim, "This is how the world fucks Africa."


Comments

The Constant Gardener Rating

" Terrible "

Rating: R, 2005

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