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Constant Gardener, The Print E-mail
Tuesday, 10 January 2006

The Constant Gardener

Universal Studios Home Video
MPAA rating: R
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite
Theatrical release year: 2005
DVD release year: 2006
film rating: Three Stars
sound/picture rating: Four Stars
reviewed by: Mel Odom

For years, John Le Carre stood head and shoulders above most thriller writers when it came to penning spy stories. Several of his novels became movies. After the Berlin Wall fell, then Communist Russia, Le Carre, like a lot of other suspense writers, had to find new subject matter for his novels. Always known for deep and rich characters, Le Carre maintained that sharp focus in his post-Cold War novels. “The Constant Gardener” is one of his best.

The story in the film, directed by Fernando Mireilles with a screenplay adapted by Jeffrey Caine, starts at a point of loss, evolves backward, then surges and stumbles forward like a punch-drunk fighter. Even though the audience knows that Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz) is dead within minutes of the film’s opening, we have to acknowledge that loss when the first 40 minutes of the film deals with how low-level British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) and Tessa met, what drew them together and what threatened to tear them apart. The last section of the movie deals with Justin’s struggle to understand what happened to his wife and why, then his eventual fight to gain vengeance as well as truth about what the pharmaceutical companies are really doing in Africa.

Chapter 1 opens up the beginning of the film with voices. Justin talks to Tessa, telling her goodbye, and we get the feeling then and there that the two will never get to meet again. The tension and sadness in the scene is palpable over the surround sound system. As the plane takes off and flies over Justin, we get the impression that we’re standing alongside Justin, listening to the plane pass overhead as the sound moves from the left speaker through the center and fades off to the right. The scene shifts to an overturned jeep. In the distance, geese take off from a lake and wing across the sky, filling the surround sound with their honking. In his office at the British Embassy, Justin’s friend Sandy (Danny Huston) comes to him to tell him that Tessa is dead.

Moving back in time, we see how Justin and Tessa meet when Justin is delivering a speech for a friend at a small gathering in London. After the speech, Tessa challenges everything Justin and England stand for. Where Justin is a quiet soul, one more accustomed to tending his garden, Tessa lives a life of charging passion and fighting for ideals. Her whole nature is about caring about other people, constantly trying to find some way to make life better for those who can’t stand up for themselves through lack of knowledge or ability. Justin just wants to take care of his plants and love this intriguing woman. After a while, Justin gets reassigned to Africa. Tessa tells him she wants to accompany him.

In Chapter 3, Justin and Sandy go to the morgue to identify Tessa’s body. When they see Tessa, who has been brutally raped and murdered, Sandy throws up. Justin immediately tries to take care of his friend, accepting Tessa’s death with outward calm. Immediately, the viewer is dragged back into the past, to see more of Justin and Tessa’s life together.

In Africa, Chapter 4 opens up with the train whistle passing through the surround sound system, the noise steadily getting louder. The tracks clack louder and louder as the wheels pass over them, making us ready to move, too. In short order, the local effects of AIDS epidemic are revealed and the efforts by major pharmaceutical companies are detailed. When we see Tessa again, she’s very much pregnant and working with Dr. Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde). The music of the play Tessa watches ebbs and flows strongly in the surround sound system, almost hypnotic in its low-keyed intensity. Later in the chapter, while filming his wife in the bath, Justin reads one of her emails and finds a suggestive letter that accuses her of having an affair with Dr. Bluhm. Justin blanks the email, but he’s already been struggling with jealousy because the letter only adds fuel to the fire of his own doubts and fears.

Justin tries to deal with his jealousy in Chapter 5. The crash and bang of dishes in the kitchen rattles through the surround sound system. Tessa explains the hotel rendezvous with Dr. Bluhm without even being asked, but the suspicion – both Justin’s and ours – refuses to go away. Later, at an event involving Justin in his diplomatic capacity, Tessa goes out of her way to pick a fight with corporate giants KDH and BBB, which are taking advantage of the local people. Everywhere she goes, Tessa makes enemies because she won’t back down over issues she believes in.

In Chapter 6, we discover that Tessa has lost the baby. Despite everything else, Tessa comes across as someone we sympathize with. The mood is very somber and dark. Tessa asks Sandy what happened to the report she filed.

In Chapter 7, Justin and Tessa’s relationship becomes even more strained. She gets very frustrated with him over a weed control box and doesn’t tell him why. She voices her fears about her marriage to Dr. Bluhm and Justin overhears what she is saying.

Chapter 8 brings us around in full circle, picking up with Justin in the morgue. From that point on, the lies concealing what happened to Tessa begin to fall away. Justin has been set on his collision course with justice and revenge. Slowly and methodically, he starts trying to figure out who his wife was and what she was doing, then shifts his focus to finding her murderers and avenging her.

The disc’s extras are interesting and watchable, but not really that awe-inspiring. The interviews with Le Carre and others detailing more information about the characters is kind of a treat, but don’t really provide a lot when all was said and done.

Many viewers will have a tough time making it through the first three-fourths of the movie because there is a definite lack of action for a spy film. But this isn’t a 007 violence fest. It’s deep and unrelenting, about normal people who become champions. During the last third or so of the movie, viewers who make it that far will applaud Justin’s resourcefulness and determination to get at the truth and make the responsible parties pay up for everything they’ve done. Although “The Constant Gardener” requires a considerable investment on the part of the usual thriller watcher, the rewards are good. A fan of the actors, actresses or John Le Carre might want to add the DVD to a collection, but other casual viewers might want to rent it first before making that decision. “The Constant Gardener” isn’t something light and airy. There’s weight and substance to it that require a definite interest.

more details
sound format: English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound; French Language Track
aspect ratio: Widescreen 1.85:1
special features: Deleted Scenes; Extended Scene; Embracing Africa: Filming In Kenya; John Le Carre: From Page To The Screen; Anatomy Of A Global Thriller: Behind The Scenes Of “The Constant Gardener”; English Closed-Captioning
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Pioneer DV-C302D
receiver: RCA RT2280
main speakers: RCA RT2280
center speaker: RCA RT2280
rear speakers: RCA RT2280
subwoofer: RCA RT2280
monitor: 42-inch Toshiba

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