For a movie starring Ralph Fiennes, The Constant Gardener begins with an unusual bang. Specifically, a violent car crash, the camera flipping over and over, the shots too close to show who’s involved or how the accident happens. Minutes later, word gets back to Justin (Fiennes) that his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) has been killed in the wreck. After a moment, the painfully proper Justin thanks the poor fellow who delivers the news.
Justin’s story doesn’t actually start with Tessa’s death, but it takes such a drastic turn that, as the film presents it, all events before and after converge at that harrowing point. Directed with signature smart ferocity by Fernando Meirelles (City of God), Constant Gardener traces Justin’s shift from trusting, go-along bureaucrat to skeptical, resolute, and increasingly fervent investigator. After he gleans from scant clues that Tessa’s death was the result of her own investigation — into the nefarious collusions of international drug corporations and first world governments — Justin determines to solve the crime. His transition is surely rooted in the movie’s source, a 2001 John Le Carré novel, but it hardly leads to the usual action-packing. Indeed, Justin is more melancholy than heroic, and The Constant Gardener is more meditative than thrilling.
This somber tone is only partly a function of Justin’s discovering Tessa had secrets from him. Or rather, he guessed that she did before she died, and even attempted to force her to confess details. But she’s not forthcoming, believing he won’t be able to handle the sheer scope of the villainy she’s fighting, and so incrementally. Frustrated but hopeful, Tessa is, in flashbacks, something of an opposite of her husband, who remains dour and taut, focused on his gardening. For him, this activity is all about perfecting the unruly, labeling and tending to needy but undemanding entities.
The film, however, integrates these bits of thoughtful control with more unmanageable, psychic elements, Justin’s emotional life that he hardly knows exists until he meets Tessa. After her death, he can no longer contain himself, and like him the movie turns increasingly inward, even as it exposes broad-based corruption and indicts British officials. Justin and Tessa’s unlikely but strangely convincing romance jumpstarts his internal journey. Their flashbacked first meeting showcases their opposing temperaments and political inclinations, as she challenges a lecture he’s reading for an absent diplomat, specifically taking issue with its defense of the U.S. invasion of Iraq (clearly an updated addition to the novel).
Flummoxed and smitten at once, Justin backtracks awkwardly, gathering up his briefcase and papers as they agree to keep talking, even to date. He insists that he really believes her rather than his colleague, and soon enough, they’re finding out all the ways that sensual, passionate, wholly pleasurable love can overcome politics. As these scenes of early affection appear in flashbacks, they are fragmented and lovely, even poetic, in particular a couple of images that repeat: in one, they laugh and caress underneath white sheets, the light vaguely angelic, and in another, she’s hugely pregnant, toweling herself off after a bath, and he/the camera glimpses her through the doorway, looking like home movies and here framed on a threshold, just out of reach and absolutely at ease with her own moment. When he thanks her for “this wonderful gift” of herself, she laughs, “How very generous of me.” She gets the joke of thinking too much of herself, as well-off white people tend to do, but still, she appreciates his solidity, no matter how naïve it might be. “I feel safe with you,” she tells him, granting him an identity he hadn’t thought of for himself.
Recalling her so brilliantly energetic and blaming himself for not keeping her “safe,” Justin makes himself miserable, but also pushes himself to pursue whatever “truth” he imagines exists. He tells himself he wants to continue her work, and assign proper blame to the villains, but he also wants to learn what exactly she thought was too arduous for him to bear, whether that was an affair with a doctor with whom she traveled, the charismatic Arnold (Hubert Koundé), or betrayals by his own supposed friends, including Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston), acting Head of the British High Commission.
Justin’s adventure takes him to Kenya, where Tessa first traveled with him for his dry government business (he’s a mid-ranking career diplomat with the High Commission in Nairobi). Here the movie takes off visually, contrasting the interiors of urban, well-heeled London with vast landscapes and poverty, at once breathtaking and oppressive. Meirelles and City of God cinematographer César Charlone keep the frame a little frantic, close on faces, following and anticipating movement, intimating both the local devastation and the personal tolls taken by Tessa and Justin’s differing reactions to what they witness.
Tessa understands how to read her adopted world, intuitively and by her hanging-with-the-natives experience, pictured as montagey exchanges, as she and Arnold visit with children and patients. She responds to people in pain with compassion, looking to save any one of the victims she might get her arms around. Justin, fretful and jealous now, keeps his distance, declaring that because their efforts would be futile against the tide of suffering, they can’t insert themselves in the locals’ unhappy lives.
Justin will learn a lesson about this, too late to save Tessa or those she tries so desperately to help, or even to save himself. The too-lateness makes its own point, about the relentlessness of systems, including bodily (AIDS, tuberculosis), political (Justin’s coworkers), and corporate (the multinational pharmaceuticals, or pharmas).
At the same time, the film falls into another familiar and rather discouraging system, that of mass media representations. Much as Tessa and Justin work as characters (thanks to subtle performances by both actors), they are troubling as bits of the larger text. They’re yet another set of white figures used to dramatize, frame and make marketable a black African story. Yes, the pharmas and the government officials are bad, as are the African warlords’ horseback thugs, hacking away at villagers, angry over money, over their own paucity, the orders they’re enacting. They’re frightening, wraithlike figures, galloping into frame on horseback, dust billowing and orange horizon burning. But even as he observes this mayhem, even seems about to be caught up in it, Justin remains obsessed with finding an answer to a Tessa mystery, so driven that he can’t help others. This is the tragedy, that his desire to help her, to save himself in her loss, so overtakes him that he appears the very white Western emblem of oppression that he rejects. He is not, and you know that. He’s a victim, a bystander who steps up after the evil is done. But he looks the part, and against this African backdrop, where Africans serve as occasion for his story, his anguish seems almost quaint. The forces set against him are overwhelming. And that might be the film’s most potent insight, that the white guy cannot save the day.