The dean of spy novelists, John Le CarrÃ©, has, with his last two efforts, blistered his pages with anger at corporate power and the stuffed, imperial arrogance of the United States and Great Britain. In his most recent work, Absolute Friends, for instance, a tale of two veteran spies morphs into an aggressive denunciation of the U.S.-U.K. war on Iraq.
This rage at re-invigorated empire is blended effectively into Jeffrey Caine’s screenplay for Le CarrÃ©’s previous novel, The Constant Gardener, itself in large part an expose of the pharmaceutical industry. In this way the author’s work — rather than losing in substance along the way from print to the big screen – is enriched for the recently released film version. This, combined with perfect casting and stellar performances from the leads, brilliant (if occasionally dizzying) cinematography, and a touching, unconventionally sequenced love story, makes for a very compelling film.
The Constant Gardener manages to stimulate both intellectually and emotionally, with its portrayal of personal and political tragedy and betrayal. Set in Kenya, Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List, The English Patient) plays Justin Quayle, a mild-mannered mid-level British diplomat, very recently married to the young, impetuous and rebellious Tessa, played by Rachel Weisz (Constantine, The Shape of Things). Tessa meets Justin after excoriating him at a public lecture for Her Majesty’s Government’s illegal invasion of Iraq. The staid career civil servant is captivated by Tessa, but her political fire is foreign to him; he prefers gardening to “leading the revolution.” The newlyweds’ passions prove to be short-lived — interrupted by Tessa’s absorption with activism amongst the Kenyan poor, and clouded by suspicions of her infidelity — and are ultimately ended with her brutal murder while on an expedition to a remote region of the country.
Quayle’s search for the real culprits in his wife’s death drives the story, bringing him into conflict with the corporate heads Tessa had been investigating, as well as many of his colleagues among the increasingly morally degenerate British bureaucrats. Of these characters, actor Danny Huston’s (Silver City, The Aviator) performance is memorable, playing the despicable Sandy, who combines lechery, British chauvinism, and slavish service to the powerful.
Along with the authentically compromised diplomats, the Africa on offer here is much more authentic than in so much unfortunate Hollywood fare – the worst exemplified by, for instance, the unfeeling and dehumanized video game hordes of Ridley Scott’s Blackhawk Down. Part of The Constant Gardener’s success owes to the insistence of director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) for shooting on location in Nairobi. The squalor of the slums is conveyed, and yet the humanity of the inhabitants is highlighted, rather than denied. African stereotypes, for the most part — such as the racist notion of the hyper-sexualized male — are played with and even inverted, rather than just being perpetuated.
Refreshingly, one of the villainous companies is Swiss-Canadian, suggesting that the culpability for Africa’s continuing oppression extends to the entire developed capitalist world and its rampant corporate power, and not just to those particularly despicable heads of government currently residing in Washington and London. And while the bad guys are clearly white-skinned or lackeys of these imperial interests, it should be noted that the indignant heroes, too, are with few exceptions white. In this sense the Africans are assigned only the role of victim; resistance is only expressed, or at least is expressed most loudly and articulately, by the dissident whites. And though this is disappointing, the film’s clear locating of responsibility for Africa’s crisis at the feet of the former colonial masters is nevertheless a refreshing antidote to the demagogy and moralizing of the almost all white rock stars at this summer’s Live-8 concerts, where organizers reportedly banned criticism of Bush and Blair, at least from the stage in London.
The venom that the film conveys is very much in keeping with the spirit of the Le CarrÃ©’s recent work, which has become quite overt: In Absolute Friends one of his characters, somewhat incredibly, even speaks of the benefits of reading Naomi Klein, Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky.
The Constant Gardener, too, provides a lot for viewers to reflect upon after they leave the theatre. That the film is rendered and acted so eloquently, and calls forth such a range of emotional responses, should only increase the number of people who see it and who, hopefully, will take the time to reflect upon its important political message.
-Derrick O’Keefe is a founding editor of Seven Oaks (www.SevenOaksMag.com), an on-line journal of politics, culture and resistance.