A shy British diplomat holds a press conference in Africa. He gives standard answers to the journalists in attendance. Suddenly he finds himself answering hard questions from a woman standing near the back of the room. She questions him mercilessly about why Britain should assist in the United States war in the Middle East. As she berates him with hard questions, the other journalists make their way to the door until it is only the woman and the diplomat alone together. They talk, they share a laugh, they go back to his place and find themselves making love. They get married and they get to know one another. This will be the great love of his life and it is only later that he will really understand anything about her.
The Constant Gardner is a drama that looks back over the events of several months and discovers the fate of that woman and how the man discovers the horrible truth about how and why she was murdered – I’m not giving anything away, the second scene shows him identifying her body. The diplomat is Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a shy man who is perhaps less understanding of the political landscape just beneath his feet. The journalist is Tessa (Rachel Weisz), a radiant beauty with a big mouth and a determination to put the wrong things right.
The problem begins with questions about the methods used by drug companies working in African villages. Into those villages come drugs that are suppose to be used on AIDS patients, but there is some suspicion that this is a lie being used as a P.R. cover-up. Tessa suspects that the drug companies are using the sick natives as guinea pigs to test new drugs. Tessa begins asking questions, making inquiries, gathering information and ultimately she becomes a target, her burned body found at a crossroads along with her driver.
The search for an answer becomes an eye-opener for Justin, who seemed to have been just a functionary – a diplomat with a good haircut and a shy manner who answered questions dutifully. His search for the truth isn’t laid out for us at the beginning. Since The Constant Gardner comes from a novel by John La Carre, we expect that the story is told in fragments, through letters, emails, conversations and memories of things that were said in passing. Things come together in bits and pieces and only eventually form one large picture.
The Constant Gardner was directed by Fernando Meirelles who made City of God – my favorite films of 2003 – and on the basis of these two films it becomes clear that he is a master of telling multiple stories that only converge in the end. He is a patient filmmaker and that is clearly evident in this film which is one of the most intelligent thrillers that I’ve seen in a very long time. He has the patience and the intelligence to tell the story in a way that allows information that we’ve learned in part to make more sense later as it comes together. He trusts that we are smart enough to figure things out.
That also comes from having smart actors at his disposal. Ralph Fiennes is excellent here as a man who seemed to have been only a functionary but only later understands that this situation isn’t as clear cut as it had been before. Fiennes is a wonderful actor but here he plays a broken man who found the great love of his life but then had her taken away from him under circumstances that he doesn’t understand. Rachel Weisz (who won an Oscar for her performance here) is a revelation. She is known to American audiences for her role as Evelyn Carnahan in The Mummy series, but here she reveals a lot of notes that I didn’t know she had. She is gorgeous to be sure but she plays Tessa as a woman with a fiercely determined heart who doesn’t know when to quit. Her story is seen in flashback and what we know of her in the beginning, through the flashbacks, is different from what we know of her at the end.
That’s what I love most about The Constant Gardner. It isn’t the same story at the end that it was at the beginning. Our eyes, like Justin’s, are open the realities of this African landscape and the cruelty going on there. This is not a movie of cheap surprises but surprises born out of the story, of revelations and elements. This is a thinking man’s thriller and one of the best I’ve seen.