Hippo Manchester
September 8, 2005

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The Constant Gardener (R)
by Amy Diaz

A handful of ordinary people prove to be no match for a powerful and well-connected drug company in the political thriller The Constant Gardener, which is also a surprisingly sweet romance.

Dig this, not only is The Constant Gardener a sweet, well-constructed love story, it’s a sweet, well-constructed love story between a husband and wife. Who are married to each other, of all improbable things.

Perhaps even more improbable is that this story begins with the death of the wife, Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz). She’s found raped and murdered in a remote area of Kenya, far from the heavily-colonial-influenced city where she lives with her husband Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a British diplomat. He only just saw her and her friend Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde) off on their trip. It is quickly suspected that Bluhm (a Belgian of African ancestry) is not only her lover but her murderer. Justin’s fellow diplomat Sandy (Danny Huston) tells him, essentially, to mourn his wife and move on but Justin seems unsure of how to do so. He becomes obsessed with the limited details he knows about his wife’s involvement with the Kenyan medical providers, specifically with the possible effects of a drug the native population may be unwittingly testing. Though she never told him about her work, he is able to piece together a conspiracy pulling in a drug company, Kenyan officials and corruption in the British government.

His search is not just a quest to avenge his wife (in fact, it really isn’t vengeance Justin is after at all) — he’s primarily trying to understand a woman he only barely knew before he married her. (They meet in what is a terribly British moment: she heckles a speech he gives with questions about the Iraqi war and, after she’s cleared the room, she embarrassedly apologizes and offers to buy him a drink.) Far more than in the initial stages of their romance, he finds himself getting to know his wife and re-falling in love with her.

The conspiracy side of the story (which makes angry but not unfounded accusations about the ways in which drug companies regard the Third World) provides a strong setting to the story of these to people. Unlike The Interpreter, the Sean Penn/Nicole Kidman movie from earlier this year that used Africa as a backdrop for a much louder action movie, The Constant Gardener makes our characters smaller, not larger, than the political and social forces they attempt to fight. Both Tessa and Justin are told to work through “proper channels” with their inquiries. When Justin decides adherence to bureaucratic rules is no longer possible, it isn’t with an action-hero flourish but with a sense of average-guy frustration. His character is not excitable but is very determined — a personality that the quiet but intense Fiennes is comfortable with.

Weisz  also does an impressive job of keeping her Tessa from seeming too shrill. We see a person passionate and aggressive but motivated by a genuine sense of right and wrong and not simply muckraking for muckraking’s sake.

The only note that rings false in the movie is Danny Huston’s character — Huston has way too many irritating tics as an actor including a fidgetiness that distracts from the scene. And, while it’s understandable that a British diplomat should have a British accent, perhaps the director should have overlooked that requirement — Huston’s accent only serves to point out how not-British he is.

The Constant Gardener is that rare orchid of American films — an intelligent thriller with  a believable love story made for the entertainment of grown ups.