Cynics such as myself may wonder if, when Hollywood gets around to making the big-budget spectacular Katrina: The Drowning of a City or whatever they end up calling it, it will be told not from the point of view of the mostly black refugees trapped in the Astrodome, but through the eyes of white relief workers who nobly enter Hell to save the helpless black victims. Not that white relief workers aren’t noble; and not that, say, white activists trying to uncover a conspiracy affecting poverty-stricken Africans wouldn’t be noble; but the idea of people of color reduced to being a suffering backdrop in their own story sticks in my craw.
The Constant Gardener is a solidly crafted potboiler with enough feints towards political significance and humanitarian passion to keep an adult audience satisfied after a summer of bleak kiddie bubble gum. For what it is — a topical thriller that takes on “Big Pharma” (the frequently unethical pharmaceutical business) but nonetheless isn’t above spies, a car chase that turns out to be a “just kidding” moment, and shadowy figures beating people up in hotel rooms — it’s a good evening out. It reminded me of The Deep End, another late-summer drama (from 2001) about a bereaved protagonist struggling to make sense of violent loss. That film was good, but not as great as many critics, relieved to be dealing with something halfway mature, seemed to feel it was.
The good news is that Justin Quayle, a proper British diplomat tossed into a grief-driven quest for truth, is right up Ralph Fiennes’ alley. His Justin is buttoned down, but not all the way; when he meets Tessa (Rachel Weisz), a fiery activist who flings heated words at him about the war in Iraq, her words unbutton him. They seem to fall into bed, marriage, and pregnancy in record time, though I think the director, Fernando Meirelles (who made the similarly antsy City of God), is telescoping events a bit. Tessa, in fact, exists only in Justin’s memory; it’s not long into the movie before Justin receives word of her mysterious death beside a desolate African road. In a rare moment of directorial restraint, Meirelles simply holds the camera on Fiennes as Justin numbly registers the news, and Fiennes quietly fills in the rest. Later, back at his home, Justin will burst into tears against a damp window, its condensation dripping down, as if Justin’s agony were so great even glass weeps for him.
Justin discovers various things about Tessa, some of which he takes out of context. When he hears bits of conversations that indicate Tessa is having an affair, or isn’t satisfied in their marriage, the personal turns out to be political. The Constant Gardener, as written by Jeffrey Caine from a John Le Carré novel, is about how the political and the personal intertwine. Justin finds that Tessa had been involved in uncovering a vast pharmaceutical conspiracy to test new drugs on African patients without their knowledge. (If they refuse the drugs, they are refused medical care.) As much driven to carry on her work as to get to the bottom of what — and who — killed her, Justin pokes his nose into a few scary places and gets it punched a few times.
I’ve seen The Constant Gardener lionized as one of 2005’s best movies, or even the best, and individual moments are electrifying. Meirelles has a fluid camera style, subtly suggesting things and trusting us to make connections. But what it adds up to is a good yarn that uses real political concerns to make itself look beefier than the average Hollywood thriller. Some may say it’s all for a good cause; more people will respond to the subject if it’s cloaked in formula (the Grieving Hero Seeks Justice for His Dead Woman — in outline it’s not much different from Sin City). I’d rather watch a documentary about the same topic than a movie that depends, for its feel-good climax, on a letter that improbably blurts out everything that will incriminate the Bad Guys. And watching Justin go through his quest, I was reminded of the end of Cry Freedom, in which we held our breaths as Donald Woods tried to get out of South Africa with his book about Stephen Biko. Meanwhile, of course, all those black people kept suffering, but at least the white man triumphed.