Compared to other espionage novelists, John Le Carré ignores high-tech gadgets in favor of consulting his moral compass. Starting with the likes of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Le Carré shrugged at tales of impossible missions and preferred to ferret out the internal motivations that drive people to betray their countries.
With the end of the Cold War, Le Carré lost his preferred playing field but gained a multitude of new ones, and in each book he sheds light onto the world's most shadowy conflicts. Le Carré's "The Constant Gardener," adapted into a film with faith and flash by City of God director Fernando Meirelles, challenges big pharmaceutical corporations and their misdeeds in the Third World. As always, the human heart protests the duplicities of global politics.
The film opens on a grisly road accident in remote Kenya, and the fractured storyline forces us to piece the plot together. We learn that unknown assailants viciously murdered English health activist Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz). Her husband, Justin (Ralph Fiennes), one of Her Majesty's middle-rank, nondescript diplomats, first grieves in silence, then rocks the boat by investigating his late wife's activities to learn why she was killed.
Justin's obsessive quest could fuel any run-of-the-mill revenge movie, and Meirelles, like Le Carré, uses it as the story's narrative engine. But The Constant Gardener shows as much interest in the marriage as the murder. They met at a press conference when Justin, then a government spokesman, fielded Tessa's indignant questions about England's involvement in the Iraq War. In his early scenes, Fiennes plays superbly against type, his embarrassed smiles and unfinished sentences revealing Justin as a good-hearted but mousy functionary, drawn to Tessa's unbounded passion.
Their whirlwind courtship reveals strains when Justin transfers to Nairobi and Tessa not only volunteers for care agencies, but speaks out against African corruption, English indifference and corporate exploitation. Seeking to expose one company's highly touted (and possibly deadly) tuberculosis vaccine, Tessa gathers secret documents and even flirts with Justin's adulterous colleague Sandy (Danny Huston) to further her cause.
Dismissed as a bloodless bureaucrat and possible cuckold, Justin reveals unexpected steel after Tessa's death. Facing a complex cover-up, he uses forged documents to crisscross from Africa to Europe on the trail of the truth. When sinister goons try to intimidate Justin to abandon his quest, Gardener cultivates the same kind of look-over-your-shoulder paranoia found in films like The Parallax View.
From literally old-school English clubs to sunbaked African villages, Justin goes farther and farther from "civilization" in pursuit of a conscience-stricken physician (Pete Postlethwaite). The film evokes a similar kind of tension between human affairs and the untamed wilderness as in Heart of Darkness, only here the predatory colonial powers aren't countries but companies that bring the world to heel.
The Constant Gardener proves to be the rare political thriller that contains actual politics. The drug-company plot stands for the larger mistreatment of impoverished nations by big business as well as richer countries. The script gives glimpses of watchdog groups and even reports some convincing muckraker-style details: Apparently, drug companies can donate expired drugs to Africans and still get government benefits. "Disposable drugs for disposable patients," declares a bitter witness.
Though Justin seeks to hold the killers responsible, vengeance isn't his real goal. He's really looking for Tessa, following in her footsteps for one last chance at intimacy, if only with his wife's ideals. While she lived, Justin tried to temper her knee-jerk empathy for suffering Africans, protesting, "We can't involve ourselves in their lives" when she considers an inconvenient act of charity (it's like the universal excuse, "Since I can't help all poor people, why help any?"). Justin takes up Tessa's causes as his own, turning the film into a call for activism.
The Constant Gardener features appropriately conflicted supporting characters, particularly Bill Nighy's slimy-silky foreign office honcho, who tries to wash his hands of Tessa's death. Some intriguing personalities briefly surface, like Tessa's crusading attorney cousin (Richard McCabe) and her doctor/traveling companion (Hubert Koundé), but they provide more exposition than insight. You can find that problem in the source: At times, Le Carré only gives us the tips of his emotional icebergs.
Though Justin and Tessa's other survivors wrestle with English-style restraint and regrets, the African settings explode with life and color. Having directed similar locales in City of God, Meirelles seems to innately understand the similarities between the slums of Rio and of Kenya. Gardener drinks in endless landscapes of corrugated roofs and shanty towns that appear to be more like shanty cities. Even the nature photography avoids postcard clichés: At Lake Turkana, the site of Tessa's death, the coppery dirt resembles splattered blood on a geographical scale.
The Constant Gardener shows more concern over Africa's staggering health crisis than thrilling audiences with the derring-do of a James Bond or a Jason Bourne. With its portrayal of doomed love in Africa, the film feels closer in spirit to Fiennes' The English Patient. The Constant Gardener lacks some of that film's richness, but shows a comparable ambition to dig to the heart of the matter.