The Constant Gardener movie full length review - Enjoy the guilt trip
This is very competently made, but I think in the final analysis, fine performances, fine production design and fine cinematography count for little when a film is so wrapped up in its smug self-deception that it demeans the causes it affects to champion.
Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a decent-hearted civil servant, falls in love with Tessa (Rachel Weisz), a political activist brimming with youthful righteousness. At the beginning of the film, Tessa weeps and rants about the decision to go to war with Iraq; we have the cliché of the "over-emotional" woman whose excess of feeling is supposed to chasten the buttoned-down conformity of the people around her. She says nothing of interest about Iraq. The subject of Iraq is a mere dramatic shorthand for any fashionable subject about which "people like us" hold the same opinion. Not two minutes later (of screen time at any rate!) our couple are shown having beautifully-photographed sex. Beautiful souls to beautiful bodies - how appropriate! How exquisitely civilized! I know an Iraqi guy who told me that in England, when people find out that he is Iraqi, they almost always apologise - "I'm so, so sorry". Why, he asked me, do they do that? Of course I replied that the majority of us in the UK opposed the war and we feel appalled by the misery that has ensued, and that the Labour government having been legitimately elected, we all feel in some way responsible for its policies. However, watching The Constant Gardener, a more sinister explanation presents itself. Perhaps those apologies to this random Iraqi are offered more as narcissistic tributes to the English person's sense of ethical superiority. Perhaps what they are saying is "how beautiful I am that I care".
And Africa? We have only one properly presented African character, a doctor, who has to have Tessa do his talking for him when the big men are around, and who has in fact so little in the way of a rounded character that he can be arbitrarily labelled as "gay" half- way through the film to service a plot-twist. Otherwise, the Africans are smiling children of the sort beloved of passing tourists, or corrupt policemen in fly-blown offices. There is no more than a superficial effort made to present the African locations as specific, coherent societies. "Africa" is merely an object for the viewer's "compassion" or repulsion. The constantly whirling camera-work flings us into the exhilarating chaos; it never occurs to the film-makers to stop and actually look at anything.
That said, the plot mechanics do their mechanical thing efficiently enough, and the characters get a bit sweaty with the stress and fast activity. Look elsewhere, however, for emotional risk or psychological insight. If the unexamined life is not worth living, neither is the life turned admiringly in the hand like a priceless netsuke. The Constant Gardener, with it's smugly cathartic ending, allows no unpolished feeling to disrupt its narcissism. I wonder if this narcissism isn't symbolised in the film by Quayle's mourning the loss of Tessa, political activism motivated by private erotic conscience, a gentlemanly pre- occupation with the conflict between duty and propriety.
The Constant Gardener ends up insulting Africa rather than redeeming it, precisely because it has redemption on it's mind. One could defend it I suppose by saying that it at least "raises the issues", but there is nothing empowering, nothing motivating about this film. It is in fact extremely boring. As it drags into its second hour, it is a movie one feels oneself wading though, up to one's waist in the sludge of fine cinematography and flashy editing. But films like this will always find a place in the market, as gloss substitutes for genuine attempt at care and insight. The times will continue to demand them