A Continent for the Taking

A Continent for the Taking

What to make of The Constant Gardener, a movie focused on Europeans set in Africa, the return of Terry Gilliam and the New York City-set Keane?


The Constant Gardener is so substantial, engaged, emotionally nuanced and lovingly crafted that I feel in danger of criticizing it to death. Unfair comparisons with other movies spring to mind, arguments against the narrative conventions, objections to the style, none of which I would have raised against a lesser film. I blame the screenwriter, Jeffrey Caine, and the director, Fernando Meirelles (City of God), and even John le Carré, who wrote the novel that inspired the picture. So effectively have they addressed their subject–the everyday, business-as-usual destruction of Africa’s people–that I struggle to forgive them for having made only a movie.

At the heart of this political story, and so of the critical difficulties, lies a human problem: Can meek, decent British diplomat Justin Quayle dare to believe that his wife, Tessa, loves him? Or, to restate the problem in more immediate terms, can movie star Ralph Fiennes believe that movie star Rachel Weisz loves him? The second question, by answering itself, helps to decide the first, for good and bad alike.

On the good side, Weisz has what is easily her best screen role to date, in which she gets to overwhelm her every scene with flooding speech and bursting flesh. “You’re quite scary,” Fiennes says to her at their first encounter, in a tone pitched precisely between flirtation and candor. To her raging river, he plays the obliging bank; and for that, Weisz’s Tessa cherishes him. She will even try to protect Justin by diverting the torrent from him, sometimes.

But does this impassioned activist have any passion for him? On the personal level, The Constant Gardener is largely the story of Justin’s doubts. Has Tessa married him only as her way of moving to his new posting, so she can pursue justice in Kenya? Is she as close to beautiful Arnold (Hubert Koundé), a doctor engaged in an AIDS program, as everyone in Nairobi thinks? Is she as open to Sandy (Danny Huston), Justin’s boss at the British mission, as Sandy seems to believe? The filmmakers, collectively, are so clever that they not only raise these questions but toy with them for a long stretch, going so far as to tease you at one point with an abrupt, outrageous shot of a maternal Tessa attended by all three men.

Had someone less famous than Fiennes played Justin, maybe the doubt could have been prolonged even further. (And the film might not have been commercially viable, so you would never have known.) In the event, though, you can guess that Tessa must feel something for a man whose screen lovers have ranged from Juliette Binoche to Jennifer Lopez. Fiennes diminishes the suspense by his mere presence; but paradoxically, this blow to the intimate drama serves to strengthen the political story of The Constant Gardener.

When you reach the hinge of the movie, when Justin shifts from doubting Tessa to carrying on her work as a muckraker, you need to believe there’s hidden steel in this man, who is so habitually polite that he can respond to a death threat with a murmured “You’ve been very kind.” Fiennes has developed a specialty of giving just this impression; in films from The English Patient through Spider, he has played characters who are wavering, damaged or even abject but somehow strong enough to persist. In The Constant Gardener, Fiennes’s star personality makes credible the entire second half of the film–by which I mean its plot, of course. On the level of portraying North-South relations, the film is simply and horribly unchallengeable.

Dozens of people die in The Constant Gardener–a few abruptly, most through a slow and quiet violence–and their killers, whom Tessa wants to unmask, are the very people who claim to be helping Africa. They are the men (always men) whose companies offer desperately needed services or jobs, with a catch; they are the government officials, both British and local, who make sure these companies do good business. Everybody with the right connections profits, while in the shantytowns and villages the bodies pile up, human life there having been reckoned a commercial write-off. You don’t need a thriller plot to know about this–in the real world the facts lie about in plain sight–but The Constant Gardener gives you an intrigue anyway, and a good one, which Meirelles plays for all it’s worth.

His first contribution as director is to cram the picture with children. They’re everywhere, showing you with their ebullience that life in Africa may be poor but must not be thought cheap. Is this a self-evident point? Meirelles, to his credit, does not shy away from the obvious. He is willing to swing from a white-patronized golf course to a black shantytown in a single, brutal pan; or to plunge his camera through a hectic, crowded kitchen, out the service door and into the placidity of a cocktail reception; or to cut between a grieving Fiennes and the images he has in memory of a rumpled and grinning Weisz, sprawled happily against an expanse of white sheet. Meirelles can hurl an image at your head as if daring you to catch it, or get out of the way; and, when he needs to, he can also let ambiguity seep slowly into a scene.

On the bad side, though, Meirelles doesn’t know when to stop. He cuts relentlessly and fusses with colors and pours on music until you think you’re watching The Constant Soundtrack. The subject hardly calls for such expressionism–but Meirelles apparently felt he had to give the film a look, to go with its movie stars and whodunit plot.

Meanwhile, an African cinema exists. Its productions are few in number, but they can be extraordinarily good–beautifully clear and poised in style where The Constant Gardener is frenetic; centered on African characters where The Constant Gardener focuses on Europeans; complex in tone (by turns funny, angry, argumentative and hopeful) where The Constant Gardener is consistently despairing. By saying this, I don’t mean to deny the right of British writers and producers, and their Brazilian director, to make a story set in Africa. So much the better, if moviemakers want to look at what’s happening in the world. But when Europeans such as Hubert Sauper are knocking around the continent, making devastating films like Darwin’s Nightmare [reviewed August 15/22], some of the luster fades from this chic and prestigious picture.

So what should you do about The Constant Gardener? See it, of course. The production will keep you entertained, and the subject matter (have I mentioned the pharmaceuticals industry?) will surely give you much to discuss later, over dinner. It’s a package deal. I just think you might want to supplement it by seeking out a few African films and then signing up for action with the best muckrakers in your neighborhood.

I don’t know why Terry Gilliam has a grudge against Napoleon–he’s been beating up on the pompous little murderer ever since Time Bandits–but for his new picture he’s finally marshaled all his forces against the Emperor. In The Brothers Grimm, Gilliam comes at him with the combined power of the world’s bedtime stories.

The year: 1811. The place: Occupied Thuringia. Will and Jake Grimm, itinerant con artists, are engaged in scaring the wits out of a backward people with fake hauntings and enchantments, all of them copied from local folklore. Jake, who is the younger and weaker of the brothers, gathers the stories, while swaggering Will collects the fee for dispersing the imaginary threats. (Will is also in charge of bedding each town’s prettiest girls and pushing Jake around.) You might say that the Grimms, as agents of a rapacious rationalism, are much like the despised French–except that Jake enjoys the stories for their own sake, and both of the brothers are soon put under arrest by the local Napoleonic general, who sentences them to death for their larceny.

The Grimms have one chance to save themselves. They must go to work for the general and rid him of another set of scam mysteries, which someone is perpetrating around the village of Marbaden.

Since you will have guessed that the Marbaden magic is real–and since the trailer reveals that the bewitched figures include Hansel, Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel–I can now dispense with plot and talk about the things that really matter to Gilliam: crows, bugs, toads, animal skins, crypts, mirrors, winches, cogwheels and walking trees.

He throws in a lot of them. You can always count on Gilliam to stuff the frame, just as you can expect him to encourage all of the supporting actors and some of the leads to prance, careen, carom, toss their limbs about, pop their eyes, stick out their chins and talk fast in funny accents. The prizewinner in the latter competition is Peter Stormare, who is close to unintelligible two-thirds of the time as the Italian torture-master Cavaldi; but Matt Damon (Will), Heath Ledger (Jake) and Gilliam standby Jonathan Pryce (General Delatombe) play along, too, not just willingly but with enthusiasm. What, no women? Well, almost none (again, as you’d expect). International Beauty Monica Bellucci™ fills out the part of the Mirror Queen, and Lena Headey appears as the fierce pagan huntress Angelika–a promising role, until she’s demoted to love interest and girl-in-peril. Yes, back to the plot. The script for The Brothers Grimm is not everything you’d want it to be; but neither is it as bad as you’d fear, with the screenplay credited to Ehren Kruger (The Ring, The Ring Two, Scream 3, Reindeer Games). The fun obsessions and the faults alike may be assigned to Gilliam.

If you think Brazil is a masterpiece (I don’t), you may be disappointed in The Brothers Grimm. But if, like me, you’ve come to miss Gilliam during his long hiatus–all those years without his crowded, cynical, sentimental, overbearing and inimitably memorable visions–then there’s only one possible response to The Brothers Grimm. Welcome back, Terry.

* * *

It may seem strange to devote only a few words to a film as affecting and pure as Lodge Kerrigan’s new feature, Keane; but sometimes a picture demands that the critic get in and out fast. For this story of a solitary and unstable man searching hopelessly for his abducted 7-year-old daughter, Kerrigan shot in the real-life bustle of New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, pushed his lead actor into actual traffic and kept a hand-held camera focused continually on the amazing, seemingly selfless Damian Lewis. Let me be similarly direct, and as succinct as Kerrigan’s opening shot, which shows the steel struts of the Port Authority as a frieze of crosses waiting for their Jesus. Lewis suffers; Lewis is redeemed; and the process is precisely as hard as it needs to be.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy