Set mostly in Africa, directed by a Brazilian, starring two Brits and financed by an American studio, The Constant Gardener is a truly multicultural film. That's become something of a dirty word in movies lately, since films like The Interpreter and Hotel Rwanda have turned serious international issues into glossy, awards-baiting cinema—with mixed results.
That those films focused on problems in Africa should come as no surprise; like late-night commercials with starving, wide-eyed kids, high-profile movies about the plights of Africans are easy to digest because they tug readily on your heartstrings while remaining a safe distance from everyday life in the West. A movie about problems in the Middle East hits too close to home because of what our military is doing there; a movie about problems in America or Europe just plain hits too close. Africa is a safe middle-ground, and people can walk out of these sorts of movies feeling like they've become enlightened without actually having to do anything.
That's not to say that The Constant Gardener plays only on liberal guilt, or that it shouldn't be commended for pointing out real injustices in the world. But, like The Interpreter, it filters the story of a tragedy in Africa through the lens of a tragedy that happens to a white person, and sometimes makes you wonder if it's equating the death of one saintly white activist with those of thousands of nameless Africans. If you get past that uneasiness, though, there is a solid thriller made more exciting by director Fernando Meirelles' colorful, kinetic style, a movie that is less emotionally manipulative than Hotel Rwanda and less cold and detached than The Interpreter.
Ralph Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a mid-level British diplomat who's complacent in his life as an ineffectual functionary, spending far more time on his constant, metaphorical gardening (a symbol for his thoroughness and attention to detail) than on worrying about complex world affairs. That is until he meets idealistic, young Tessa (Rachel Weisz), a trust-fund activist who romances Justin and then convinces him to marry her and take her to Kenya with him.
Once there, Tessa takes up the cause of the poor who are being exploited by drug companies as guinea pigs under the guise of free health care. She teams up with a local activist (Hubert Koundé) and writes a scathing report that ends up in the hands of weasely government functionary Sandy (Danny Huston, with a seriously unconvincing British accent). The film opens with Justin finding out about Tessa's murder, and then uses flashbacks to fill in the backstory as he searches, as meticulously as he gardens, for answers about her death. In the process, he (and, by extension, the audience) learns much about the rampant corruption in big pharmaceutical companies.
If it all sounds a little pedantic, it is. At the same time, Fiennes really sells Justin's anguish and political awakening, and Meirelles, who co-directed the mesmerizing Brazilian film City of God, injects the material with a vibrancy and cultural awareness that lifts it above the dull political thriller tone of the story, adapted from a John Le Carré novel.
In City of God, Meirelles had documentary filmmaker Katia Lund as co-director to mitigate some of his flashy tendencies, but here he doesn't have that moderation holding him back. Consequently, Gardener plays a lot more like a conventional Hollywood movie, especially with its story of international intrigue. But Meirelles' use of jump cuts, oversaturation, handheld cameras and other visual flourishes adds to the story rather than detracting from it.
While Gardener really wants to come off as daring and politically aware, at its heart it's a mystery and love story, and it succeeds on both of those counts. If you come out of the movie concerned about the way drug companies exploit Africans, that's a nice bonus, but you're just as likely to come out touched by Justin's love for Tessa, or caught up in the excitement of the story. And there's nothing wrong with that.