Better Living through Chemistry
Benjamin Franklin equated virtue with an honest day’s work and money, and shortly thereafter Jane Austen listed her subjects as love and money -- "what else is there?" Abuses and all, theirs was an insular, more credulous world with less distance between have and have-not. Two centuries later, billions of Euros and globalization have remade the universe beyond their recognition, and following the success of City of God, Brazilian Fernando Meirelles tackles essentially the same themes writ Big, in fact, “The World’s Biggest Drama,” and dedicates The Constant Gardener to “all AID [sic] workers who lived and died giving a damn.”
For the first half hour the shaky result gets a hung jury, but, after present and past are set out, spy steam is picked up as the film unravels during a long ninety-nine minutes more. Novelist Jeffrey Caine’s two-year adaptation of a John le Carré novel falters and confuses in bridging the two prongs -- true love discovered after the fact, and the unearthing of immorality in corporate-governmental greed -- to conclude most lamely with Ham’s (Richard McCabe as Arthur Hammond) eulogy blatantly summarizing everything. Human indignation and social intent run throughout, and the heart is in the right place, but that does not spark the creature to life.
Baroque involvement of plot was frequent in the classic noir, even to an unsolved murder or two, but, shifting from, say, 1940s or ’50s Los Angeles or Paris to modern Nairobi, London and the Continental high-stakes stage, the tale bites off so much that a moment’s thought will reveal gaping implausibilities and inconsistencies.
Low-echelon diplomat and avid amateur gardener Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) is designated to Kenya, and impetuous human-rights activist Tessa (Rachel Weisz) begs to accompany him. In flashback they laughingly but successfully fell into her bed after she had attacked him and his fill-in High Commission lecture in Britain’s capital, but they barely know one another. In and around Nairobi, now pregnant Mrs. Quayle but constantly with native Dr. Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), she flings herself into working with, and against, local facilities in the burgeoning campaign to combat AIDS.
One reviewer found Fiennes’s character too wimpy, but Justin Qualyle is really only quietly civilized, a type increasingly rare in today’s hyper society. Opposites do attract in this case, and his love for Tessa is British solid, though doubts about her fidelity, about her possibly having used him, begin to gnaw. (In a cheap misleading hospital scene, she nurses a black child.)
Tessa has become more than an embarrassment to certain people in high places. So she is gotten rid of, seconds into the film, and her traveling companion Bluhm remains unaccounted for. Haunted by memories, the flashbacks and visions that continue until the absolute end, the bereaved husband will travel two continents to find the truth. Herein lies the difficulty, for as the depth of her commitment comes to light, so, too, does evidence amass about her cause -- the film’s cause -- and the danger and death it courted.
Fellow servant of Her Majesty, Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston) is their mutual friend and a confidant over whose shoulder the audience learns a thing or two; but he either plays a double game or, more likely, is convenient but badly conceived. Anglo-Indian Ghita Pearson (Archie Panjabi) moves in high circles but is decent enough to be handy for more insider information, plus a relieving tidbit concerning Dr. Bluhm. Ditto Ham, a dying Tim Donohue (Donald Sumpter) who also furnishes a false car chase and never-used handgun, and, “doing penance in the Sudan,” inconsistently frightened Lorbeer (Pete Postlethwaite).
Just what is this Hidden Agenda that, from deep love, Tessa would spare her doggedly loyal spouse, this Secret so open that everyone else knows it, that is lying around in signed letters on HRH stationery, on cell phone records and audio tapes and scraps of paper, in e-mails encoded so that teen computer geeks can read it? That, armies costly and Black Holes and Mutinies bad publicity, the Empire has changed its guise, its dirty work now done by local thugs and its power not in restive territory abroad but in globalization; that borderless pharmaceutical giants test their research on the exploited helpless poor; that governments are in bed with CEOs, and the rich golf and drink in Third-World European enclaves.
By itself, indignation makes a tract, not a movie. Lacking artistic control, showing its seams, The Constant Gardener is unsuccessful. Its best cinematic touches are the semi-documentary shots of drought- and civilization-withered Africa, polluted by chemicals and sewage, and of indigenous peoples too desperate and dying to be dignified as we’d like, preyed on by their neighbors and both hunted by the new colonialists. The African score is given short shrift, while both it and the original music by Spain’s Alberto Iglesias are too easily and obviously placed; but, following Justin’s finding his love where he’d lost it, do listen through the closing credits.
(Released by Focus Features and rated "R" for language, some violent images and sexual content.)