Skip to main content

Some very nasty things live under rocks, especially in foreign gardens.


The Constant Gardener
(2005)

A not-quite-great John Le Carré adaptation, but one that confirms that filmmaker’s have been consistently much more astutely than they did in previous decades (in the last decade or so we have seen this, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Tailor of Panama).

Director Fernando Meirelles boarded this project after his reputation-making (internationally at least) City of God. It further cemented his status as a thoughtful, intelligent filmmaker tackling big themes with skill and insight. Since then, he’s been tarnished by falling short of his aspirations in Blindness and 360. But what he brings to the genteel, reserved world of Le Carré is immediacy and verve. Meirelles’ verité style, adopting handheld camera for the most part, clashes productively with the icy callousness of corporate decision-making. It’s only in the final reveal that one is left with a slight sense of cop-out, that the apparent triumph (on whatever level) isn’t true to the desperation of world it depicts.

Perhaps such cynicism should be tempered by the knowledge that Le Carré based his story on an actual case in Nigeria, in which Pfizer trialed a drug that left children disabled or dead. But the story here presents an impenetrable blockade of collusion and threat from corporate and government interests, one that suggests no respite. In his novel, the author commented that the fiction he presented was as “tame as a holiday postcard” in comparison to reality.

Unlike the same year’s The Interpreter, Meirelles is happy to set his narrative within an actual country. Ralph Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a British diplomat in Kenya, whose wife and her doctor friend are investigating the covert testing of a TB drug. When Tessa (Rachel Weisz), and then her friend, turn up murdered, Justin pursues his own inquires.  As he uncovers evidence of corruption at every juncture his own life comes under threat.

Jeffrey Caine’s screenplay eases the thriller aspects in slowly, with the first half of the film more resonantly concerned with Jeffrey’s reflection on his relationship with Tessa. Fiennes essays the slightly silly, slightly embarrassing and emotionally reserved posh British chap immaculately, such that it’s quite clear that this will be another of Le Carré’s unlikely protagonists.

Our understanding of Tessa who, as subjectively depicted by Justin, appears to be one of those impassioned people whose cause is justification for trampling on her personal relationships, is a masterful lesson in shifting perspectives. We’re onto her from the off, a young activist taking up with someone who represents everything she apparently loathes. A ticket to her furthering her mission, it seems. And then there’s the affair everyone knows she’s having. And her prostituting herself with the British High Commissioner (Danny Huston). So, when this is all flipped on its head, we the audience feel as guilty as Justin. Well, not quite, as Justin being told the truth can never have quite the same impact for the audience as his earlier remembrances. But it’s an effective storytelling device, and both Fiennes and Weisz put considerable emotional heft into their parts (Weisz was actually pregnant during filming, hence the believable “prosthetics” in her nude scenes).

The supporting cast includes strong work from Huston, but also Bill Nighy as a slippery superior to Justin, Donald Sumpter, Archie Panjabi and Pete Postlethwaite. Mereilles’ regular cinematographer Cesar Charlone gives the film a saturated, arid intensity; the use of handheld camera, and employment of devices such as surveillance footage, adds a growing unease to Jeffrey’s journey of discovery.

It’s worth contrasting Gardener with The Interpreter again for a moment. Both take Africa as their starting point, but the latter film constructs a fantasy in a make-believe country where the intervention of the UN can set all things to rights. The President in that film is set out as an individual who once espoused freedom and justice but became the tyrannical despot he so loathed. This, however, is set out in an all too obvious moment of speechifying by one of the main characters.

There is a thematically similar moment in Gardener, but it sets its sights much lower and therefore hits its target more accurately. Justin confronts Huston’s character on his involvement in the conspiracy and his deference to the British government’s corporate masters (pharmaceutical appeasing means jobs), noting that he has become everything he stood against. It’s a believable moment, where we see how one’s erosion of standards and increase in relative justifications can lead to a complete loss of moral compass. In direct contrast to The Interpreter, Gardener is also willing to take a swipe at the UN as an embodiment of global justice and salvation; it’s just another corporate body like any other.

However, what really raises the film is it’s emotional content. The injustice that Justin feels he has done to Tessa through doubting her drives him to his fate. One that he is at peace with. He is not so much consumed with her broader political and humanitarian quest, but he assumes its colours in order to right this perceived wrong. A charge could be made that The Constant Gardener falls prey to the “white westerner telling the African’s story” (Blood Diamond is a particularly grinding example of this), and it’s a fair point. Although, perhaps, the film needs to establish itself from Justin’s perspective in order to recognise his own and, by extension our, complicity in the whole process of exploitation and profit.

So the final, literal, sermon comes across as an unwelcome cheap shot across the bows. It’s so unsubtle that Mereilles must have been aware of the connotations of the scene, but the effect is pat and diminishing of the film’s overall impact. Far better to have left the audience aware of the likely outcome than to embellish the tale with a grandstanding flourish. It was probably seen as a necessary balance to what might otherwise be seen as a downer ending, but the film deserved something with a bit more of Justin’s reserve, as opposed to Teresa’s bombast.

**** 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

If you never do anything, you never become anyone.

An Education (2009)
Carey Mulligan deserves all the attention she received for her central performance, and the depiction of the ‘60s is commendably subdued. I worried there was going to be a full-blown music montage sequence at the climax that undid all the good work, but thankfully it was fairly low key. 

Alfred Molina and Olivia Williams are especially strong in the supporting roles, and it's fortunate for credibility’s sake that that Orlando Bloom had to drop out and Dominic Cooper replaced him.
***1/2

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

Can you close off your feelings so you don’t get crippled by the moral ambiguity of your violent actions?

Spider-Man Worst to Best

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What, you're going to walk in there like it's the commie Disneyland or something?

Stranger Things 3 (2019)
(SPOILERS) It’s very clear by this point that Stranger Things isn’t going to serve up any surprises. It’s operating according to a strict formula, one requiring the opening of the portal to the Upside Down every season and an attendant demagorgon derivative threat to leak through, only to be stymied at the last moment by our valorous team. It’s an ‘80s sequel cycle through and through, and if you’re happy with it functioning exclusively on that level, complete with a sometimes overpowering (over)dose of nostalgia references, this latest season will likely strike you as just the ticket.

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

How can you have time when it clearly has you?

Dark  Season 2
(SPOILERS) I’m not intending to dig into Dark zealously, as its plotting is so labyrinthine, it would take forever and a day, and I’d just end up babbling incoherently (so what’s new). But it’s worth commenting on, as it’s one of the few Netflix shows I’ve seen that feels entirely rigorous and disciplined – avoiding the flab and looseness that too often seems part and parcel of a service expressly avoiding traditional ratings models – as it delivers its self-appointed weighty themes and big ideas. And Dark’s weighty themes and big ideas really are weighty and big, albeit simultaneously often really frustrating. It came as no surprise to learn of the showrunners’ overriding fixation on determinism at work in the multi-generational, multiple time period-spanning events within the German town of Winden, but I was intrigued regarding their structural approach, based on clearly knowing the end game of their characters, rather than needing to reference (as they put it) Post-It…

Doesn't work out, I'll send her home in body bag.

Anna (2019)
(SPOILERS) I’m sure one could construe pertinent parallels between the various allegations and predilections that have surfaced at various points relating to Luc Besson, both over the years and very recently, and the subject matter of his movies, be it by way of a layered confessional or artistic “atonement” in the form of (often ingenue) women rising up against their abusers/employers. In the case of Anna, however, I just think he saw Atomic Blonde and got jealous. I’ll have me some of that, though Luc. Only, while he brought more than sufficient action to the table, he omitted two vital ingredients: strong lead casting and a kick-ass soundtrack.

Spider-Man with his hand in the cookie jar! Whoever brings me that photo gets a job.

Spider-Man 3 (2007)
(SPOILERS) Spider-Man 3 is a mess. That much most can agree on that much. And I think few – Jonathan Ross being one of them – would claim it’s the best of the Raimi trilogy. But it’s also a movie that has taken an overly harsh beating. In some cases, this a consequence of negative reaction to its most inspired elements – it would be a similar story with Iron Man Three a few years later – and in others, it’s a reflection of an overstuffed narrative pudding – so much so that screenwriter Alvin Sargent considered splitting the movie into two. In respect of the latter, elements were forced on director Sam Raimi, and these cumulative disagreements would eventually lead him to exit the series (it would take another three years before his involvement in Spider-Man 4 officially ended). There’s a lot of chaff in the movie, but there’s also a lot of goodness here, always providing you aren’t gluten intolerant.