“The Constant Gardener” was an incredible disappointment, a flower in half bloom. I wish the dated script would have been up to the beautiful filmmaking and acting. It should have been shot as a Cold War period piece – since Le Carre seems as out of touch with modern day realities as the Bush administration. At least Karl Rove knows that governments don’t kill whistleblowers anymore – they smear their reputations. (Former ambassador Joe Wilson’s CIA wife Valerie Plame was outed, not annihilated!) It would have been more plausible for Rachel Weisz’s character Tessa to have stayed alive and had to defend the awfulness of her past (real or government invented) to Ralph Fiennes’ Justin Quayle. Fortunately, Fiennes’ finesse as an actor is astonishing. From the very beginning when Justin’s a passive player (doing nothing because he can’t help everyone) to the end when he “becomes” the active Tessa (trying to save a single child because he can) we are completely convinced that he believes in both opposing viewpoints at each distinct moment in time. Fiennes so seamlessly inhabits his character, understands his awakening, as to rise above the mediocre script.
Which brings to mind another African set movie, “Hotel Rwanda” that for all its predictability and clichés, works because its story isn’t genocide but the callous response by outside nations to the crisis. (Similarly, Hurricane Katrina’s “story” isn’t the storm itself but government indifference.) The big misstep of “The Constant Gardener” is that its theme is irrelevant. Government and corporations exploiting the poor is not a story – it’s a fact of life. As the credits rolled I was left feeling the same way I’d felt years ago watching Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game”, when the “shocking” moment of a character being discovered as transgendered merely left me baffled as to why the leading man didn’t see what was apparent all along! Similarly, “The Constant Gardener” expects us to identify with the characters being horrified that a pharmaceutical company would use Africans as guinea pigs, yet instead I wondered why this was such a surprise to them in the first place (Tuskagee Trials anyone?) Storylines hinge on the audience identifying with the leads – how “shocked,” how “horrified” they are – thus we are able to become part of their lives, to walk for two hours in their shoes. If we think they are merely naïve it distances us. We go to the movies to be entertained and enlightened, not to tend an ignorant garden.