Friday, April 4, 2008
100 Days, 100 Movies: The Constant Gardener (2005)
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz
Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener is a brilliantly structured and executed thriller, and a critical commentary on the behaviour of the rest of the world towards the problems in Africa. This is a haunting story that unfolds with a powerful sense of urgency as the protagonist, Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) races against time to discover and expose the truth before those who wish to keep it hidden catch up with him.
The story begins with Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz) leaving on a trip from which she will never return. Justin learns of her death and must identify her burned and mutilated corpse. The circumstances of her murder – and her relationship with Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), who was also killed – are shrouded in mystery. Justin is aware, in the vaguest of ways, that she’s been looking into a pharmaceutical company testing an experimental drug in Kenya. He also suspects that she’s been having an affair with Arnold. The way the film is structured, how it jumps back and forth in time and limits its own point-of-view to how much Justin knows at any given time, keeps the audience guessing about Tessa’s relationship with Arnold. When Justin is at his most suspicious, we’re given scenes which lead us to conclude that they must be lovers. Later, when more light is shed on things that Justin had previously only half-understood, we know that she was faithful. The way that the film plays with the question of is-she-or-isn’t-she is part of what makes it so compelling. We want her to be innocent because we want it for Justin, who suspects that maybe she didn’t love him after all, but continues to adore her just the same.
In a flashback, we see their relationship begin at a press conference. She’s a reporter and he’s a government official whose gentleness seems disconnected from her monolithic view of the government as one heartless, soulless entity. He attempts to politely answer her questions with regard to the war in Iraq as she hijacks the conference with an angry invective against a war she considers illegal. It’s love at first fight. Not long after, Justin is assigned a diplomatic position in Kenya and Tessa asks him to take her with him. They marry and their new life begins, but quickly begins to fall apart under the weight of his suspicions about her fidelity, and her need to keep secret her research into the practices of the pharmaceutical company.
What Tessa and Arnold discover is that the company is testing new drugs on the poorer people in Kenya, forcing them to participate in the study by threatening to deny them access to drugs that they actually need. Travelling to a remote region, they also discover that the “aide” being provided by drug companies is coming in the form of expired pills that are useless beyond the way that they provide the appearance that something is being done. Discovering these facts are part of Justin’s quest, which takes him out of Kenya to Germany, back to Britain and finally back to Kenya where he meets his fate but does so, at least, knowing that Tessa loved him and knowing that the truth will come out and their deaths won’t be in vain.
Meirelles imbues the film with a sense of immediacy by shooting in the realist style of a documentary, much like his previous masterpiece City of God. Also in keeping with his style in City of God is the way that he doesn’t shy from showing the poverty in which people live. In fact, not only does he not avoid showing it, he practically dares you not to look at it and to try to ignore the fact that in the 21st century people live in a way so far removed from those of us in the “developed” world that we can’t even begin to imagine it. The power of the film isn’t solely in the way that Justin is hunted down or even in its commentary on the way the Western world exploits developing nations. Its power lies mainly in its condemnation of the feigned position of powerlessness adopted by the world’s richest nations towards its poorest. “We can’t involve ourselves in their lives, Tessa… There are millions of people, they all need help. It’s what the agencies are here for,” Justin tells her in regards to her request that they help a woman and her two children. “But these are three people that we can help right now,” Tessa replies. In that exchange lies the ultimate message of the film, that in a world that grows smaller everyday it’s not all right to reason that the problems have nothing to do with you and that you have no business doing anything about them. It’s not okay to just leave it to “the agencies” if you have the power and the opportunity to do something yourself.
Weisz won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for this film, and quite deservedly so, but this is really Fiennes’ show. He skirts the edge with this role where one false note would have made the character seem like a wimpy cuckold. What we get instead is a man attempting to navigate a complex set of emotions, who doesn’t quite know how to deal with the memory of his wife, and whose life is in a violent state of flux. This is a wonderful, compelling performance – perhaps the best of Fiennes’ career – in one of the most moving and compelling films of the last decade.