Unlikely Romance Between Bureaucrat And Activist Overshadowed In Routine Conspiracy Flick
You can understand why Focus Features tapped Fernando Meirelles to direct the screen adaptation of John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener. After all, the backdrop for the 2001 novel is the dirt streets of Nairobi, and no filmmaker has done a better job of capturing the teeming, anarchic life of a Third World city than Meirelles did in his 2002 breakthrough City of God. In that movie, the Brazilian director not only evoked the violence and vibrancy of Rio de Janeiro’s slums but also carved out distinct individuals from the mass of faces.
He does something similar for Nairobi in The Constant Gardener. The handheld cameras and quick cuts that served him so well in City of God create the requisite dizziness for Le Carré’s tale of a mysterious scheme by the British government and a giant pharmaceutical company in Kenya.
Nonetheless, there’s no getting around the fact that most of the dialogue—in the screenplay as in the novel—takes place between Europeans in the air-conditioned refuge of modern architecture. The specifically Third World scenes are no more than the backdrop for a rather conventional big-business conspiracy flick, and Meirelles’ strengths are likewise marginalized.
It’s not that the Brazilian does a bad job directing British actors such as Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Bill Nighy, and Pete Postlethwaite; it’s just that he doesn’t bring anything special to the game. The result is mere competence, and that’s not enough to rescue this movie from its genre formulas. It’s certainly not enough to overcome the blandness of Jeffrey Caine’s screenplay. Instead of seizing the key moments and discarding the rest, Caine tries to touch quickly on as many plot points as possible, creating a story of expansive breadth and no depth. By skimming across the surface, he never pauses long enough to allow us to care about the characters and what might happen to them.
Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a milquetoast British bureaucrat who is completely flustered when a young woman interrupts his talk in London by accusing the British government of great crimes in Africa. Quayle is even more surprised when the lovely activist, Tessa Abbott (Weisz), takes him back to her flat and screws his brains out. We have to guess at the basis for this unlikely romance, told in flashback, because neither Caine nor Meirelles pause long enough to give us clues.
Before long, Justin and Tessa are newlyweds, stationed in Nairobi. That doesn’t stop her from loudly confronting his employers over their politics at every reception or luncheon they attend. The dynamic is very similar to HBO’s recent The Girl in the Café, about a repressed British diplomat (Bill Nighy) who falls in love with a young activist (Kelly Macdonald) who creates a scene at a G8 conference in Iceland.
In both movies it’s possible to sympathize with the politics of the two women and still be appalled by their tactics. Being rude to people is rarely a way to change their opinions; such confrontations are all about self-indulgent heroism and have little to do with improving the plight of Third Worlders. The Girl in the Café, written by Love Actually’s Richard Curtis, offers the wish-fulfillment fantasy of such self-indulgence producing actual results. Le Carré, at least, has the good sense to punish such naiveté with brutal violence.
The wonderful Nighy is also in The Constant Gardener, playing Sir Bernard Pellegrin, a silkily evil British diplomat who assures Justin that his wife’s death was regrettable, hinting smarmily that she was having an affair with her Kenyan colleague. Pellegrin and the equally sleazy Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston) assume that the unassertive, unassuming Justin will retreat into his sorrow and his beloved gardening (hence the title).
Instead Justin picks up the loose threads of Tessa’s investigation into a cover-up of drug tests on Kenyans that have killed off many of the subjects. Fiennes remains strangely passive even when his character takes charge, but before long we are waist deep in a network of falsified results, payoffs, and dead witnesses, made all the more confusing by Meirelles’ jittery camera movements and jumpy edits. Actual facts are doled out at an agonizingly slow rate, and when they arrive they limn the usual evil-businessman plot.
Why does every big-budget summer movie have to revolve around a giant conspiracy that upends the entire world order? It’s a boring cliché that has nothing to do with our actual lives. Why can’t filmmakers focus on the lives of real people in our own neighborhoods? Why can’t they tell the story of someone like the teenager in City of God who uses a camera as a way to get out of a gang?
Meirelles is not the first filmmaker to founder when he left behind his own culture to pursue Hollywood big bucks, and he won’t be the last. You can only hope this is a temporary detour in his promising career and not a permanent disruption.