Constant Gardener, The

dir: Fernando Meirelles
[img_assist|nid=932|title=Before the fall|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=416|height=300]
A diplomat’s wife is raped and murdered. The diplomat is given an explanation, which seems entirely plausible, considering his wife and where it happens. He doesn’t believe it, though, and neither do we.

No, this isn’t a film about White People in Trouble in Dark Places. This isn’t a culture clash about the first world versus the developing world. It is a film about a quiet and harmless bureaucrat who wants to find out who his wife was, and wants to understand how and why she died.

Of course then it does become the Little Guy versus The Man, but any story of this nature needs someone we care about (our Hero) versus someone who doesn’t like them very much (the Baddies). This is a simplistic but believable take on what a spy / government thriller could be like in the real world we live in beyond the cinema screen. This world, this hallowed world with its constant conflicts of interest and its negation of the worth of human life, especially amongst those whose standard of living doesn’t match our own. Also, they look different from us and are therefore kinda funny.

There is always the risk of something like this being preachy, or looking like a begging charity ad headed by some well-fed and well-groomed actors, using their Compassion face, telling us ‘Every three seconds, a child dies in Africa. You can make a difference.’

Then they want to take money straight from your credit card each month to sponsor little Ndugu. Which, on top of Amnesty’s monthly charge, Medicin sans Frontieres, the Wilderness Society and One Nation, would mean every fortnight I’d be broke before payday, as opposed to the day after like I’ve been used to over the last ten years of gainful employment. And that’s just not on.

It is far better for me to feel sorrow for the poor and disenfranchised of the world through the limited exposure I have to their plight on the television and cinema screens, and hold on to my money. Those Goodies and Monkey DVDs, and single malt whiskies don’t buy themselves, you know.

There is this phrase which has come into common parlance, ‘compassion fatigue’, which is interesting, in a depressing way. It posits the idea that people, hearing about the starving kids in Africa or tsunami victims in south east Asia or earthquake victims in Pakistan, eventually get tired of hearing about it and just tune out. The error of the phrase assumes that most people at any stage of the process ever gave much of a damn about something not affecting them directly in the first place. Apathy, and ‘as long as it’s not in my back yard’ thenceforth becomes known as ‘compassion fatigue’.

‘Tcheh’, as my grandmother would say if she weren’t already dead.

The point of The Constant Gardener is not that life sucks in Africa for most of its people, or that it’s your fault, or that you should care, you selfish bastard. The point is that when a situation is already bad, there will always be a bunch of people who’ll want to make a profit from it by making things worse, and a small number of well-intentioned idiots who try to stop them from doing so.

Imagine thinking “Well, the people of Africa are screwed anyway, what with the AIDS and the multitude of other diseases killing them off, and kids with Kalashnikovs fighting for warlords in civil wars, killing each other over aid packages, why don’t we speed things up a bit AND make some money in the process?”

Is it so far fetched? For centuries the European colonial powers have treated the countries of what we now refer to as the developing world the way Australian businessmen treat underage Thai prostitutes. How is Africa any different? Almost every European country that could has had its snout in the African trough at some stage over the centuries. These days it’s called ‘investment’, which, of course, everyone wants and everyone benefits from. Who are you to criticise it, you pinko?

Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, renowned for co-directing the remarkable City of God with Katia Lund, steps up to the plate and delivers another steaming pile of social commentary mixed with visceral visuals, although this is nowhere near as good or as confronting as his previous triumph. It’s still a solid film. In comparison it has a simpler structure, but the narrative still jumps back and forth in time in order to tell its story about a quiet man on a quest to get to know his violently departed wife.

Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) is a British diplomat working at the British High Commission in Kenya. His wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) is one of those annoying people who cares about the plight of others and even deigns to get her hands dirty literally and figuratively trying to help them out. She helps people on the personal and the big picture level, as an activist trying to stop the actions of a specific company which may be killing people. For fun or profit, I’m not sure.

Justin, as the constant gardener of the title, is either pretty blind or chooses to turn a blind eye to most of her activities. As a diplomat, the vast majority of people he works and socialises with are all British diplomat whitebreads as well, so he is somewhat insulated from the reality of the place. Which is not a criticism. He works on that higher level of diplomacy which operates on the geopolitical level of helping out countries by restructuring their economies and aiding British / EU firms in their business dealings with the peasants of the world.

Upon hearing of his wife’s death, naturally, being British, he’s quite miffed about it. More so than the gruesome details of her death, Justin’s real source of pain is the realisation that maybe he didn’t really know Tessa that well, and perhaps she was taking him for a ride. The film drops enough hints to imply Tessa may have been capable of anything to achieve her ambitions, and that she married Justin as a means to an end.

So the dual mystery for Justin is the pursuit of the truth of her death, and whether he actually loved the skank or not. Perhaps they both took each other for granted, perhaps he enjoyed having a trophy wife who scandalised the other ex-pats with her wicked ways and musky odours, and left him to his own garden-based devices.

In essence, he starts to genuinely fall in love with her only when it is too late, so his pursuit of the truth becomes more a way to honour her than it is to punish those responsible.

There is a grim realism to much of what happens, a stark reality to the cheapness of life in Africa, whatever the colour of the skin involved. At other times there is a cursory simplicity to the proceedings to keep things speeding along, but it doesn’t necessarily detract from the overall package.

The cinematography is gritty and hyper-real, with lots of shaky handheld, over-amped earthy colours and rapid editing to increase the feeling of paranoia and pursuit. Shaky camerawork and over-editing generally anger me, but it isn’t too bad in this flick. It doesn’t approach the nightmarish and unwatchable levels of recent Tony Scott films (Spy Game, Man on Fire, Domino), and it is in service of the story in the places where it is used.

Both Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz acquit themselves well, putting in strong performances. Weisz generally does nothing for me, but impressed me in this role. It’s easy for a role like hers to be painful to watch, and she manages to balance the different facets of the character well to avoid this.

Fiennes has carved a niche for himself in modern cinema generally playing unsympathetic lead characters (think The English Patient, End of the Affair, Spider, Quiz Show, Onegin), and is pretty good at it. He is not as unsympathetic in this role as he usually is. The end of the film, and the way he plays it, are particularly strong.

The rest of the cast is also good (Danny Huston, who seems to be in everything these days, Pete Postlethwaite and Bill Nighy are good in their roles), and though the film is long, it moves at a cracking pace, and doesn’t fixate on convoluted plot details or criminal intrigues too much. The director doesn’t make the townships in Nairobi and the various locations in Kenya look anything like postcards, making the film feel less exploitative or pandering than these kinds of confections usually are.

There’s a theme paralleled in the film, early on when Tessa tries to help someone and is stopped by Justin, and later on when Justin tries to help someone and is stopped by someone else. It’s the old point about, well, what’s the point of helping a handful of people or one person, since you can’t help them all? Isn’t it all just token? So isn’t it better to just drive on?

Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. Maybe the overall misery suffered by millions across the world negates any effort by one individual to help another individual.

But people have a choice. The only aspect of the infinite we can affect is that which occurs before us, and we make our choices and excuses as we see fit, impacting or not people’s lives with sometimes minuscule acts of kindness or callous acts of indifference.

We do what we can, in the end.

7 socially aware movies set in countries you’ll never visit full of people you wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire but you still sympathise with for the duration of a film and for at least an hour or two afterwards out of 10

“I thought you spies knew everything.”
“Only God knows everything, and he works for Mossad.” – The Constant Gardener