The Constant Gardener

A travelogue of the mind.

Kenya is a problematic place for a romantic government official or a devoted gardener for that matter. Both of those are in the character of Ralph Fiennes' Justin (a just man), who marries Rachel Weisz's Tessa, an activist inviting the wrath of global businesses determined to profit from vulnerable natives. No surprise Hardy's Tess had the same doomed outrage and singleness of purpose.

The Constant Gardener is a travelogue for ideologues, a thriller that engages on two levels: Who are Tessa's enemies? How can a marriage survive the tumult of intrigue and temptation? The film demands attention to the details of both questions, for it makes it clear there are no easy answers when wickedly smart corporations are both helping the third world with needed drugs and endangering when they test and manipulate results to gain government approval (Vioxx anyone?). A character summarizes the foregone conclusion: "No drug company does something for nothing."

What if the government is complicit? So much the worse, so much the more complicated. If the wife is careful to shield her government official husband from her idealistic entanglements, to the extent that he could easily think her unfaithful with her handsome black colleague, then the film courts appearance and reality, trust, and sacrifice.

The acting in Constant Gardener is excellent, from the intelligent coupling of Fiennes and Weisz to the enigmatic friend and colleague, Sandy, played with cunning sweetness by Danny Huston, son of the great director. The hand-held camera and close-ups are too many and too distorting, albeit they achieve the effect of claustrophobic chaos (at the expense of revealing character).

If it sounds like Graham Greene country, it should: fragmented story, spies, love, longing, regret, imperialism, exploitation--the list of Conradian jungle corruptions just goes on. But that is a tribute to the rich load of human entanglements that people modern Africa and post-modern cinema. Hotel Rwanda is tame by contrast.

Conrad in his 19th century wisdom summed up the ambiguous world of colonialism and humanism and the dark talk of companies that save and savage: " . . . the talk of sordid buccaneers; it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted in the work of the world." Halliburton comes to mind.