A garden-loving, mild-mannered, single British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) returns to London to give a speech in the place of Sir Bernard Pellegrin (Bill Nighy), the Queen’s ambassador to Kenya. When Justin finishes the boring speech a young woman, Tessa (Rachel Weisz) confronts him and asks piercing questions about the role of the British in the current war in Iraq. The audience, embarrassed by her, departs but when Justin approaches her she apologizes and asks him out for a drink. They end up at her apartment in Chelsea. As he prepares to return to Nairobi she asks him to take her along in any way he can so they are married.
As Justin goes about his gardening in Kenya he uses a pesticide to kills weeds. One day, the now pregnant Tessa comes home with Dr. Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde) in tow. She works with him but Justin does not ask why, nor does she tell him. When she sees the package of weed-killer in Justin hands, she confronts him and he is profoundly mystified by her outrage.
Later, when Tessa returns from a trip upcountry, she asks him to check an incoming email. It is from a friend saying she had seen Tessa and Arnold together at the Hilton and did Justin know? Justin is confused but Tessa herself admits being there and he feels better. On another occasion he overhears her talking to someone about their marriage of convenience. He feels sad but she makes every effort to show how much she does love him though it becomes evident she has been using him from the beginning.
Another diplomat, Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston) knows what Tessa is up to, as does the local Scotland Yard chief, Donohue (Donald Sumpter) because at a party one night Tessa very unsubtly and loudly questions them about medical testing practices in the country. Sandy, who seems to be a friend of Justin, is very attracted to Tessa.
Tessa loses the baby. At the hospital the young girl in the next bed dies after giving birth, tended to by a mysterious white doctor, Lorbeer (Pete Postlethwaite). The girl’s 12-year old brother walked 40 kilometers with her to get to the hospital. As Justin and Tessa drive home, they see the boy and a woman carrying the baby. Tessa wants to give them a ride, but Justin refuses saying taht there are thousands of people who need help and he needs to help her get home. Tessa explodes and says that they cannot help everyone but they can help these three people right now. Justin’s level social awareness is nowhere near that of Tessa.
Tessa goes upcountry again for a couple of days with Arnold. Sandy comes to see Justin at home in his garden with the bad news that a white woman and a black man have been found dead, burned to death, in their car. Justin goes to identify her. By the time he gets home, the government has confiscated her computer, disks and files, looking especially for a letter that Pelegrin had written to Sandy about a comprehensive report Tessa had sent to the ambassador about native people dying as a result of testing and treatment for TB.
Justin, who realizes from Tessa’s writings that she not only loved him very much but was involved in investigating inhumane practices by a pharmaceutical company endorsed by the British and Kenyan governments, realizes he must find out how she died and why. But he is being watched and warned, and as he returns to London follow the clues to the truth that his wife knew from the very beginning, he is being watched, his passport is confiscated. As the sense of danger is heightened, so is Justin’s determination to leave the comfortable safety of his limited existence to face reality.
This outstanding, riveting, gritty, thriller of a film is based on the novel by spy-master John La Carre’. The cross-cutting editing style that takes us backward and forward in time and makes us pay attention is reminiscent of other films such as The English Patient, Cold Mountain, 21 Grams, Crash, etc. But the grainy photography is never lush – except at the very end when the bare beauty of the African desert startles us. The hand-held camera style creates the impression of discomfort which is consistent with the heartbreaking story about the African people we are experiencing. If Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) wanted to elicit outrage from us by his filmmaking, he succeeds. The film made me cry.
Ralph Fiennes plays against type as the shy low level diplomat, and Rachel Weisz is totally credible as an informed, awake crusader of humanity.
Although the word globalization is never used, this story is as up-to-date as any we have heard about food practices resulting in starvation in underdeveloped countries, or the copyrighting of food DNA by American universities and companies in order to eventually receive “ royalties” when foreign farmers plant the seeds and harvest the produce, except that the film targets trans-national pharmaceutical companies who test vaccines and medicines on “expendable people that no one misses or cares about anyway.” We are also given a glimpse of existing conditions in the Sudan as well where Dr. Lorbeer exiles himself to make reparation for his part in the growing scandal.
As you may have noticed, examples of how the West treats African people was highlighted earlier this year in Sahara, excruciatingly in Hotel Rwanda, and now, with a poignant, heart-wrenching tale of who the weeds are and where the weeds are really growing, in The Constant Gardner. This is a movie with a message: globalization, whatever its benefits, relies on bottom-line thinking that expends people. The film reminds us that all people have value, and that there are heroes willing to speak – and die – for those who have no voice or are rendered invisible by lack of media coverage in the West or developed nations.
Seeing this during this week when the tragedy caused by Hurricane Katrina is an on-going human disaster in the American South only makes me think – and pray – about what’s really important and what I can do to raise awareness about injustice and take positive action to aid my brothers and sisters wherever they are. Understanding the Principles of Catholic Social Teaching, based on Scripture and Tradition are worth contemplating. Here is an paper I wrote about Globalization, Hollywood and Catholic Social Teaching you may want to check out:
I am reading about the Lost Boys of the Sudan. 60 Minutes had a segment on recent troubles in the Sudan last Sunday but they failed to mention that this is a country that has been in a state of crisis, starvation, and child soldiering since about 1985. Millions have starved to death in the last two years. This book is beautifully crafted and written with a cadence that makes it all seem so real.
They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan by Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng and Benjamin Ajak
Be sure to watch for the release of Innocent Voices in October. It is another strong, moving story about the powerful vs. the weak, that is, gross and grave social injustices endorsed by the West.
PS So far this year, Crash was at the top of my Ten Best Films List. The Constant Gardner just changed that.
1) The Constant Gardner
3) Hotel Rwanda
4) Innocent Voices… and others…