Constant Gardener

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Under A Blood Red Sky.

Oct 1, 2005
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:A thriller with real people and real thought.

Cons:Can be preachy and slow in spots.

The Bottom Line: In spite of a few overly preachy moments, a great dramatic thriller that relies on smarts not guns.


The Constant Gardener is almost like a U2 song in its execution. It's a film that mixes drama, romance, intrigue and social commentary. The advertisements have tried to sell the film as a thriller and most of the reviews have played up that aspect by noting that the movie has its basis in a John LeCarre novel. However, Gardener is a thriller only in the absolute loosest sense of the word. It works as a thriller for the most basic reason: It entertains an audience. However, it does not substitute action for thought as your typical movie thriller does. In fact, a good part of The Constant Gardener is devoted to exposition.

And so we are told
This is the golden age
And gold is the reason for the wars we wage
I want to be with you, be with you
Night and day
-U2

Ralph Fiennes gives another great performance (in comparison with his one in Schindler's List NOT The English Patient) as Justin Quayle, a British diplomat in Kenya. As the film begins we hear him wishing his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz, giving what may be her best performance yet (no reference to the Mummy)) well as she sets off on a trip of some sort. At first listen (we hear them speak over the opening credits before we actually see them) we learn only that they are married. We then flash forward several months and learn (along with Justin) that Tessa was murdered.

In most cases, the story would have Justin breaking down and vowing to not rest until Tessa's killers were punished. But Justin seems somewhat detached. His friend Sandy (Danny Huston) seems more genuinely affected as they head for the morgue to identify Tessa's body.

We then flashback to how Justin and Tessa first met. Tessa shows up at a speech that Justin is giving. After the speeches, she takes him to task over Britain's involvement in Iraq. Not long after that, we see them together under le bed sheets. We then follow them through marriage, Justin's posting to Kenya, a miscarriage and her activism. All in all it's 45 minutes before we're back at the time of the murder.

I bring that up to reinforce the point that The Constant Gardener is not a traditional murder mystery. In one sense we might see it as a love story. But it’s not that either. In another sense it could be seen as a work of social commentary (with its comments on the pharmaceutical industry and the insinuation that it floods developing and poor African countries with shoddy drugs) with a Liberal bent. But it’s not that either. In a way, it’s all of those things mixed into one. Hence the U2 analogy. In fact, the only thing missing from The Constant Gardener is the inclusion of one of the Irish supergroups’ songs over the closing credits.

We're taken through Justin and Tessa's life and we see how their relationship was for the mot part fairly cool. Not cool as in uncivil. But cool as in there was very little traditional romance aside from the eroticism. We see Justin spend most of his time not on his job in his garden. And Tessa's always out involved in some sort of activism. Her latest cause involves those aforementioned pharmaceutical companies, who may have unleashed a dangerous Tuberculosis drug on the African populace and then covered it up.

In The Constant Gardener, there are no clear-cut heroes or villains. Shades of grey are everywhere and that's what gives it the edge. It also doesn't follow other Hollywood endings such as resolving all the issues miraculously by setting the baddies in one particular spot and then sending in the hero to blow them away. In fact, the ending of the film, while not unhappy, is as unsettling as the ending of the original Manchurian Candidate.

There are a few chases here and there in The Constant Gardener. But they are here because they are part of the story, not just scene fillers. The characters are ones we truly care about, the story is engrossing and as the movie ends we find ourselves emotionally drained.

In the trees our sons stand naked
Through the walls our daughters cry
See their tears in the rainfall
-U2

The Constant Gardener is a superb dramatic thriller that helps end the summer 2005 movie season on a rather high note*.

*I wrote this review on Oct 1 although I originally saw the movie on Labor Day.


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