At the opening of The Constant Gardener, Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles' adaptation of the novel by John le Carré, we hear a conversation before we see it. The screen remains black, still running credits, as a man and a woman negotiate a departure. Slowly, the scene dawns, revealing the couple on an airstrip, in shadow. Behind them, a white plane gleams, nearly devoured by the sun. Then the woman steps forward, toward the plane, and disappears into the light.
It's a blinding, gorgeous light, like a beginning or an ending, and one that Meirelles uses again and again in his film. He seems to suggest that when people disappear (and, more pointedly, die), they are subsumed not into darkness but into light. Perhaps it's a sign that a film is set in Africa when the thing to fear isn't the shadows but the sun.
That's why it's so interesting that Meirelles uses his stylized overexposure in the film's only sex scene. The principals — Justin (Ralph Fiennes) and Tessa (Rachel Weisz) — have just met and argued in public; they retire to Tessa's apartment for a coupling that is bathed in illuminated purity. It's breathtaking, almost spiritual, and the effect is to elevate a spur-of-the-moment sexual encounter into romance — to imply, in shorthand, that though the couple have just met, there is something real between them. Whether or not we trust this assertion (and therefore the relationship) is a linchpin of the film's conflict. Soon enough, we'll have plenty of reason to question Tessa's fidelity.
In fact, the couple may be mismatched. Tessa is a righteous firecracker, a human rights activist who must speak truth to power no matter the consequences. Justin is the kind of loyal, upright English diplomat for whom decorum comes first. (He's constant, and he fusses with plants; hence the title.) When Justin's colleague informs him that the woman found brutally murdered by a lakeside in Kenya is probably his wife, Justin responds: “Good of you to tell me, Sandy. Can't have been easy.”
The murdered woman is indeed Tessa, and Justin's job is to untangle the nest of lies that the authorities (i.e., his colleagues) have fabricated to cover their complicity. The mission takes him from the roiling colors and sounds of Kenya, which Meirelles paints with a Brazilian's eye for the musical glory of chaos, back to the silent blues and grays of London's steel and glass, and then again to Kenya. Justin learns that Tessa had uncovered dark dealings in the pharmaceutical industry, dangerous drug experiments being carried out on poverty-stricken Africans without their knowledge, and with the English government's support. And at that point, there's no going back to gardening for Justin.
As a quiet man empowered by emotion, Fiennes is excellent. He's always been an easy actor to appreciate but a hard one to like, perhaps because he gives off airs of privilege and vanity. But here, as a humble public servant unable to ask his wife direct questions about vital issues in their relationship, Fiennes is sympathetic (if exasperating). When a slippery Kenyan police officer, intent on extracting information, remarks that “For a diplomat, you're not a good liar,” Justin replies, “Well, I haven't risen very high.”
The problem with The Constant Gardener is that it turns into a thriller — a conventional thriller, with the requisite machinery: car chases, death threats, dark men in dark suits in dark cars, and so on. And it doesn't know when to stop. This reviewer had had enough after 80 minutes; by that point, all secrets were out, and the minor loose ends could have been bouqueted in a coda. But the film continues its relentless pursuit of justice for another 40 minutes, during which we learn little more about anything or anybody. There are additional harrowing scenes in Kenya, including one engineered to run the heart muscle an extra few laps, but there is no news.
Is a “romantic thriller,” as the filmmakers call it, the right place for an exposé of (one of) the pharmaceutical industry's misdeeds? Might be. Is it a good place to make a strong case for human rights activism? Perhaps, if only because it reaches such a wide audience. But there is something unsavory about the exposure of such massive suffering against the gilded backdrop of a big-budget film. Most of The Constant Gardener is made with good taste and with respect for its African subjects. But when Fiennes flees a Kenyan village as bandits begin their merciless attack, it's hard not to feel a little uneasy with the medium. We're meant to get a thrill out of the chase, but it's not thrilling. Sickening's more like it.