Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener

There is a great deal of death, there are funeral events
in my helpless passion and desolate kisses,
there is the water that falls in my head,
while my hair grows,
a water like time, a black unchained water,
with a nocturnal voice, with the cry
of a bird in the rain, with an unending
shadow, a shadow of a wet wing which protects my bones:
while I dress myself, while
endlessly I stare at myself in the mirrors and window-panes,
I hear someone following me, calling me, sobbing,
with a sad voice rotted by time.

– Pablo Neruda (trans. by W.S Merwin)

One of the key challenges of being an artist (and more so now, perhaps, than ever) is the daunting task of balancing the private against the universal, the individual against the world. To focus too much on the intimate is to risk ignoring the larger picture for the sake of some trivial detail, and to end up losing your audience by being unable to connect to their realities . To focus too much on the universal is to risk drowning in generalities, without the point, the edge of human contact that great art requires. There is a line between the conquest of nations and the sparrow’s fall that every true artist must learn to walk.

It is a line that the film The Constant Gardner doesn’t quite manage to walk, even though, in a sense, that line is what the movie is about. The Constant Gardner is many things – a tender love story of passion and loss, a brooding meditation on Africa’s woes, a paranoid spy thriller teeming with conspiracies and intrigue, an archetypal fable of the individual who takes on the might of Big Brother and makes a difference. Yet at its heart, Le Carre’s story is an allegorical meditation on the important question of how we react to and deal with the constant suffering and injustice that we see in the world around us. In debating the correct response to this, Le Carre sets up a marriage between two opposing points of view – Justin, the quintessential diplomat, who spends his time tending his garden and minding his own business, worried about his own family and content to leave the relief efforts to the agencies, since the task of saving the world, is, after all, too big for one individual to take on. And Tessa, who believes that we must make a difference where and when we can, and who will stop at nothing to make her point – even if it will do no good. It is one of the sweeter ironies of the film (and one characteristic of Le Carre) that it is Tessa who is brought to grief by her attempts to be discrete and Justin, in the end, who suffers for taking on powers too great for him.

Given so intelligent a conceit to work with, it is a pity that The Constant Gardener is not a stronger, more compelling film. The problem, I think, is that Meirelles tries to say / do too much through the movie. The result is a movie that seems disjoint, unfocussed – like a collage of Mission Impossible, Nowhere in Africa, Erin Brockovich, Remains of the Day and Love Actually all rolled into one. The trouble with this is that Meirelles never seems to stay with anything long enough for you to get truly involved – in his haste to just get on with it, he runs through the entire story without letting us engage with the characters and / or meditate on the emotional depth that the plot makes possible. The Constant Gardener is like the view of a beautiful landscape seen from a very bumpy car – you’re going too fast to really enjoy it.

If the movie remains engaging, it is at least in part because of Le Carre. This is classic Le Carre – the same balance of intrigue and feeling, the same sense of ordinary people trapped in a web of extraordinary circumstances, the same discrete precision. At his best, Le Carre is a writer of such genuine quietness, such deeply human genius, that to call him a writer of spy stories is to entirely miss the point. Of all the British Secret Agents ever imagined, Le Carre’s Smiley has to be the most emotionally compelling – and while Justin Quayle isn’t quite in that league, he is nevertheless a character of Chekhovian proportions, so that for all the choppiness of the movie, his presence in it cannot be ignored.

The real saviour of the film, though, is Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes, is, single-handedly, the emotional heart of the film, its centre of gravity. It is his performance that rescues the film from being pure camp – his presence that lends it its grave, distinguished aura. Understated yet passionate, Fiennes is the proper gentleman made translucent, a character poised on the trembling edge of great emotion, clinging to dignity itself as a sort of rebellion. Ezekiel writes “The slow movement seems, somehow, to say much more”. Quietly matter of fact till the end, Fiennes is the burning embodiment of that idea – just to see the silenced longing in his eyes is to be overwhelmed by the tide of his sorrow.

Nothing else in the movie comes close to Fiennes’ performance. Rachel Weisz manages to look vaguely pretty, but never really comes together as a character – seeming more immature and adolescent than quixotic. Hubert Kounde seems uncomfortably aware of being on camera. Bill Nighy sleepwalks through his part as a two-faced politician. Richard McCabe goes around being as British as ever. The truth is there is much in this movie that is trite and contrived – if the film still manages to move you, it is because of Fiennes’ hauntingly authentic, vulnerable presence, which survives even the increasingly bizarre twists of the plot, turning what is ostensibly the unmasking of a political conspiracy into a deeply personal quest for closure. It’s like hearing Chopin played in a crowded bar. Go watch this movie just to see it.

P.S. Marcia Angell has an interesting piece building off the movie in the New York Review of Books. Ostensibly a review of the film, the piece quickly veers off to talk about the reality of drug testing in Africa, laying out the details of the shocking and questionable practises that drug companies use to take advantage of the appalling health conditions in third world countries – details that she claims were an integral part of the book but get left out in the movie. The piece says little, if anything, about the movie, but makes for informative reading otherwise.

P.P.S. The title of this post is, of course, a reference to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American – which I was strongly reminded of watching this film.