When Erich von Stroheim set out to film the novel McTeague in 1924, he did what seemed natural: he shot what was on page one, and then page two, and so on. He ended up with a nine-hour movie. The movie version of John Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener makes it seem like we haven’t come any farther in the art of adapting densely plotted novels.
This is a big, expensive movie about big, expensive causes like African poverty, pharmaceutical industry abuse, and general Western crapulence. It's also a movie that struggles heroically to sell its street cred, with up-in-your-grill denunciations of the Iraq war and location filming in the African interior. We get the sea of corrugated metal shacks on red laterite ground, begging bowls and general anarchy parade that might be expected. But that's all scenery; the core of this film is a stale corporate murder story that would be hard to sell as a spec for CSI if not for the money and talent involved.
Ralph Fiennes stars as a sheepish diplomat named Quayle. Like any good sheep, he of course falls for a loud-mouthed bulldozer who is not afraid to drag him around by the ear. The woman in question is Tessa (played by the vibrant Rachel Weisz), and she has one of those occupations that only exists in the movies; she hunts down big pharma abuses the way some folks hunt down tornadoes. Always in the right place anywhere on the globe, at the right time, she will “write a report” that could bring the entire industry to its knees.
As the action of the film opens, Tessa has written one of her vaunted reports on some anonymous pharmaceutical villains, accusing them of using African subjects as guinea pigs for a questionable drug. (The drug in question has one of those hilariously evil movie-drug names – Dypraxa.) While driving through the Kenyan backcountry, she is captured, raped and murdered, and burned. Her driving companion is hung from a tree and filleted. There's a harrowing scene where her crisp body must be identified in a makeshift Kenyan morgue.
What follows is an exhaustive (and exhausting) attempt by her husband to solve two parallel mysteries: Who murdered Tessa, and was she being unfaithful with a male friend during her final days? The film is sneaky on this point, and poses questions it doesn't really want to deal with: Is Quayle disturbed by the idea that his wife may have had a lover, or is he disturbed by the idea that his wife may have had a black lover?
Truth be told, The Constant Gardener thrives on creating, for lack of a better phrase, racial discomfort. What else are we supposed to gather from scenes where the protagonists' car is blocked in the street by a gaggle of young African boys yelling "White man, roll down the window and give me a dollar!" Corporate baddies also take the opportunity to insult the memory of Quayle's dead wife by sneeringly referring to "her black lover." There's also a badly manipulative scene in a hospital, where we see an immediately post-pregnant Tessa nervously cradling a suspiciously dark-skinned baby. It turns out to be the roommate's baby. Hardy-har.
Now, back to those denunciations of the Iraq war: any serious observer would welcome a film that deals squarely with the issues of the day and takes a strong point of view on either side. The Constant Gardener is not that movie. Liberal grand-standing is just one of a number of distractions that director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) uses to pry our attention away from the essential blandness of the central story. He has a lot of tricks up his sleeve including flashbacks, sexual intrigue and expensive stunt-work. When all else fails, he even includes bizarrely disjointed action scenes.
What Meirelles can’t get away from is the essential novelness of this film, which would announce itself to any blank-slate viewer who meandered into the theater. There are back-stories we don’t care about, character arcs that don’t go anywhere, and, most lethally, a series of Big Ideas that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Let me sum it up this way – I watched the film attentively and I honestly don’t remember where the title comes from. Another novel-turned-movie with a not dissimilar theme, The English Patient, might have served as a useful how-to guide for the filmmakers.
The actors do what they can; it's a testament to the talent on display that we remain involved at all. Rachel Weisz does a particularly good job of playing a recognizable kind of woman, whose political dedications are all-consuming and who will do pretty much anything to serve them. Ralph Fiennes plays a part that's not unfamiliar to his resume - the reluctant, woman-deprived colonialist. There’s also an unknown (to me) actor in the film who owns his very brief bad-guy role; I would describe his character as a cross between a Merrill Lynch vice president and a thousand year-old space alien. (The great actor Gerard McSorely is also in the film, but he is McSorely wasted.)
One thing I enjoyed about the film was the inclusion of a theme that must have been familiar to Fiennes, from his role in the underrated film Strange Days. The habit of Quayle’s late wife to record video-diaries and otherwise surround herself with recording instruments makes her quick, brutal death that much more difficult to accept. The unexplored library of personal videos she leaves behind warps the grieving process and twists her widower’s mental state into a pretzel. It would have been nice if more time had been spent on subtleties like this, which make a movie more than the sum of its chapters.