When a film goes out of its way to portray an entire industry as the epitome of rapacious evil, barely two steps above drowning orphans in a river, you have to at least speculate that the filmmakers might be stacking the deck a little in favor of one side of the argument. Fortunately, The Constant Gardener works quite well on the level of a pure thriller, so you can accept for two hours that its heroes need their corrupt pharmaceutical companies like Luke Skywalker needed Darth Vader.
Based on John le Carré‘s novel, the movie details the efforts of a British diplomat, Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) to learn why his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) was brutally murdered. They were an unlikely pair, he the living example of upper-class British propriety and she a fiery and impulsive activist. As he learns what she was doing while he was dutifully tending his garden, he gets drawn deeper into her cause, which involved exposing the side effects of a new tuberculosis drug being tested in Kenya.
Justin’s quest takes on the character of detective work as a form of expiation, purging his guilt over being so disconnected from his wife that he was not only unaware of what she was investigating but he drew the wrong conclusions by thinking she was having an affair with her colleague, an African doctor named Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde). In the end, it also becomes a way, I believe, to follow Tessa wherever she has gone.
The thriller aspect of the movie works up until the very end, when Justin tracks a doctor named Lorbeer (Pete Postlethwaite) to a refugee camp in the Sudan to learn the final pieces in the puzzle surrounding Tessa’s murder. Their meeting is interrupted by an attack on the camp by bandits that does little to further the story and seems only to add an “exciting” action sequence to end the movie.
While the film’s politics are complex and not completely unworthy of discussion, they do require you to swallow whole the concept that an entire industry can basically move governments around at will like chess pieces. Syriana tackled similar themes a bit better by showing the issues involved from as many sides as possible and not ignoring the merits of any of them.
The film’s only significant annoyance, however, is that the director, cinematographer and editor have a fetish for handheld cameras and jumpy cuts that can make it a bit hard to watch, especially on the big screen. Hopefully, they now have that out of their respective systems and can use it with a little more restraint next time out.