Thursday, August 18, 2005

Review: The Constant Gardener (2005)

The Constant Gardener
125 minutes
Rated R

By Scott Mendelson

One thing that The Constant Gardener gets right, something that many other thrillers and social message movies get wrong, is that the very worst sort of evil is not born out of lust, greed, or thirst for power, but rather laziness. Whether it's not replacing a series of safety caps that would have cost less than $1000 and thus prevented the 1996 crash of Value Jet 592, or ignoring problems with the side engine GM cars that caused several slight-impact crashes in their 1970s models (cost ratio: $8.59 to fix each car vs. eventual $4.9 BILLION lawsuit settlement), it is apathy and laziness that causes so much suffering at the hands of those allegedly evil, faceless corporations.

The Constant Gardener is a classical old fashioned political thriller in which a well meaning, but naive person is awakened to the evil or corruption that exists around them in their idealized environment after a loved one is killed and/or their own life is turned upside down (think most films by Costa-Gavras, who popularized the genre). The clueless do-gooder is low ranking British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes and yes, his character likes to plant and tend to gardens), who discovers in the opening scene that his social crusader wife Theresa (Rachel Weisz) has been murdered while the two of them were residing in Africa.

For the first forty minutes or so, we flashback to their tumultuous but loving relationship which details his attempts to balance his own diplomatic responsibilities with his wife?s more direct approach at dealing with African AIDS drug policies. When we are brought back to the present, we focus on Quayle's guilt-ridden quest to discover just why his wife was murdered. Needless to say, this was not a robbery gone wrong, but a desperate attempt to silence a vocal critic with strong evidence of damaging information about a major pharmaceutical company. What that information is, who is involved, and what the consequences are, I'll leave you to discover.

That the film goes into details on the moral dilemmas and outright immoral actions of major drug companies is a given, but the core mystery and personal story never gets lost amid the politics and skulduggery (the alleged horrors of such companies' policies regarding poor African nations and even our own broken health care system can be found via a simple Google search, so I won't list them here). The film is also full of small character details. Pete Postlethwaite shines in a third act role as a doctor with much to atone for.

I'm fond of the opening moments, where Theresa confronts her husband-to-be with a ridiculously overwrought and marble-mouthed anti-Iraq-war rant that is so poorly delivered that one wonders if it was merely a ploy to empty the room so she can hit on this handsome guest lecturer (Rachel Weisz is quickly becoming one of the better actresses of her generation, giving credibility to popcorn movies like The Mummy or Constantine). And several characters state or imply, with a frightening effectiveness, that it may be less than immoral to use African AIDS sufferers as pawns, since they are just about dead anyway (1996's Extreme Measures with Hugh Grant and Gene Hackman, was a terrific medical thriller that dealt with similar issues on American soil). At the core, the film is about a man who is shattered to discover that his wife loved him far more than he thought she did, and that her love prevented her from taking the steps that might have saved her life. And the mystery being uncovered eventually leads to a trail of normal men who did just a little bit of evil, because doing the right thing would have taken more time and more energy.

The film only stumbles at the very end, with a 'big speech' by a peripheral character that is ruined by a montage of African children playing happily and smiling at the camera, in case the audience just didn't get what was at stake before. For just that moment, this very smart movie assumes that we are very dumb. Of course, it's ironic that such a well-made thriller trips itself by lazily explaining the moral of the story, a story in which great sins are committed out of that same laziness. On a digressive note, for a little seen gem also starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, track down Sunshine. Released in 2000, this story of three generations of a German Jewish family is the rare movie to deal with Jewish persecution in genuine shades of gray.

Grade: A-

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