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.