Ralph Fiennes is a chilly actor, well-cast in Schindler’s List and The English Patient . As Justin Quayle in the new movie The Constant Gardener , he doesn’t let you close. But afterwards, when you reflect on the film, you may remember Justin’s disarming decency when he first flirts with his future wife; or much later, the soft strength of his shoulders as they choose a name for their baby. It’s on reflection that Justin gets to you.
Justin is a meticulously groomed mid-level diplomat with the British Foreign Service. He is finishing a boring speech when a woman in the audience stands up. "What map was Britain using when it invaded Iraq?" she demands. "We blew it up because we were running out of oil." That’s Tessa (Rachel Weisz), and he’s hooked. They tumble joyfully into bed. "I feel safe with you," she says. He will soon be examining her charred body in a morgue.
For now, Justin takes his new wife to Kenya. At a party, Tessa marches right up to Kenny Curtiss (Gerard McSorley). Kenny’s company is running clinical trials on a new AIDS drug. Tessa smells a rat: if they are testing for AIDS, why are they also testing for TB for free? Drug companies don’t do something for nothing.
Justin sees, but doesn’t see. When he drives down the street, hungry children call out, "White man, roll down your window!" He sees a plane drop a few bags of rice to thousands of starving people. Another plane drops useless drugs, long past their expiration dates, as a tax write-off for the drug companies. For Africa, these are not just a drop in the bucket, but a drop in a bucket with no bottom. It takes Tessa’s murder to shock Justin into awareness.
Was Tessa just using Justin to get at his powerful contacts? Was she having an affair with Dr. Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), with whom she was found dead? All Justin knows is that his wife was so full of secrets, he can’t even grieve. Eventually, the movie reveals all of Tessa’s secrets. Not necessary. For Justin, understanding Africa, and Tessa, are one.
If the thriller plot is average, the movie is anything but. Most studio-financed films are shot on sterile sound stages. But in director Fernando Meirelles’s previous film, City of God , Rio itself seemed to be writing the story, like a chef cooking right at your table. Here, Meirelles wants to show you the real Africa so badly it makes his camera twitch.
Meirelles doesn’t penetrate the Englishness of John le Carré’s novel, but he knows the anger. Africa’s need, exploited for corporate greed, should stir you up but good. But the real target of The Constant Gardener is indifference. Africa has no resources to plunder, so it’s not on our radar. Here’s a movie with more on its mind than the price of gas.
The Constant Gardener is playing at Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.