You know you’re watching a John le Carre mystery whenever you can hear the clock ticking on the mantelpiece. For those of you who aren’t familiar with John le Carre, he wrote some of the most iconic British espionage literature of the past fifty years, which has, in turn, inspired some of the longest winded film titles of the past few decades. He wrote the novels that later became the movies Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Both movies are excellent. However, as much as I admire John le Carre and Fernando Meirelles, who also directed City of God, I had little interest in seeing this movie when I first saw the previews. It sounds awful to say it, but I will. I thought, “Oh great, another Oscar winning film about Africa.” I think a lot of people had a similar reaction, or at the very least, tossed this movie aside into the giant box of Oscar winning and foreign movies that people told them they should see. One day. After Hot Tub Time Machine.
I don’t think this reaction is a mistake and so I’ll meekly climb my soap box now. Most movies that take place in Africa run into either Scylla or Charybdis. Either they’re too timid to approach the reality of the country, and instead paint a fantasy (remember Tip of the Spear?). Or, even more obnoxiously, they lean on the problems of the country in hopes of squeezing out another Oscar before our concern packs its bags for some other third world. I was a little hesitant at first to watch The Constant Gardener because I feared that underwhelming feeling you sometimes get when an Oscar winning movie passes you by. Just as you can expect someone to tell you that you should watch it, you can count on someone to tell you why you didn’t get it. The bottom line is that I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my respect for either Meirelles or John le Carre.
Let me tell you now, if you ever shunted this movie aside on the suspicion that the Oscars were won before the filming, and that the reviews afterwards wore false smiles, I understand your indifference. Regardless, give this movie a second chance, despite how too-good it looks. Meirelles made a serious movie. The Constant Gardener takes a long, unblinking look at the dangerous political marriages between Africa, state aid, and humanitarianism and the resulting atrocities. It makes no shoddy claims or definitive answers and except about people.
I’ll warn you. If you take a good look at this film, it might cut you
Now, that being said, take my recommendation with a grain of salt. John le Carre is not for everyone and what I like about him others might detest. I remember once watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with someone who hadn’t ever seen a le Carre movie. At the end I was completely transported, biting my nails; if someone on screen had dropped a tea cup I would have probably passed out. Only after the movie finished did I realize that the person I’d watched it with was dead asleep. If you’re looking for an action thriller, this probably isn’t your movie. Unlike his contemporary, Ian Fleming, le Carre’s characters take their mysteries and thrills one step at a time, usually only after playing a rousing game of chess, or perhaps re-potting the begonias and sipping on a cup of earl gray. Compared to Fleming’s sheer sided, diamond compression of manhood, le Carre’s protagonists tend to look as wilted as boiled spinach. Ironically, I watched this film just after the momentous Skyfall and there were times when I caught myself expecting the main character, Justin, to break some one’s shin, or start a bike chase and instead, he got his ass kicked.
The Constant Gardener is my kind of mystery though. I find myself biting my nails when a character mutters, and holding my breath while Justin re-pots his goddamn begonias before taking tea. The tension of the movie revolves around the relationship between Justin and Tessa. Most of the time, in fact, the scenes between them are charged with more tension than when Justin is in dire peril.
This formula only worked because I cared about the characters so much. I empathized with Justin – modestly able, mostly distracted, and completely thunderstruck that he had such an awesome wife. While I felt like Justin, I fell in love with Tessa, who was written so we fall in love with her. Ralph Fiennes (again in Skyfall) does a brilliant job of playing Justin by what he fails to say, and his subdued, somewhat timid reactions. Rachel Weisz, passionate, altruistic, manages to be both ambiguous and highly charming, inspiring our loyalty and trust even as we doubt her, which isn’t that surprising after seeing her performance in The Fountain. I felt like Justin. I wanted to believe in the goodness of my wife. The movie by contrasting this love story with the horrors of the scheming pharmaceutical companies, had the arguably realistic effect of making worthwhile love seem an anomaly. As much as we want to believe her, how can we trust Tessa?
The Constant Gardener trades in subtleties. No questions have a single answer. The violence sinks in more deeply when its off screen and has a quality to it as final and helpless as the landscape itself. Africa is wide and desolate and red, full of persisting life, but when the violence passes you’re only left wondering as to why it happened in the first place. It unsettled me when I noticed the absence of “why” in the film, especially when there is so much death to explain. One scene will haunt me for a long time. Raiders swoop down on an isolated village. The whole thing unfolds as if rehearsed. People run and the raiders pursue, women die, children are rounded up. A man stands staring at his grass hut, now a ball of flame. The logic of the film had entered me at some point and I knew what would happen next, off screen, when the credits rolled and I left to go eat lunch. The villagers will rebuild. The grass huts will go up again and be burned away. Victories and losses in that land are written in sand. But just as the violence cannot not be explained or remedied, neither can the love. Both come from a place as wide and inexplicable as Africa.
“Some very nasty things live under rocks. Especially in foreign gardens.”
Indeed they do. Bravo.
The Good: Terrific performances by Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes in a subtle, thinking man’s thriller with deep questions.
The Bad: Some of the answers to those questions. Anyone planning to join the Peace Corps should not watch this movie.
The Beautiful: The movie pays attention to Africa as a pressing dilemma rather than a backdrop for a thriller. It’s a heavy punching movie with a lot to say about the dilemma’s of a torn country.