Compromised: Gardner less than thrilling
The problems in Africa are enough to provide fodder for countless films (and musical events). The Constant Gardener rolls too many of the problems into one film– a good one that could have been better.
Director Fernando Meirelles is on less sure footing than he was in his native Brazil in City of God, where he was able to be more focused. Jeffrey Caine's screenplay is based on a novel by John Le Carré, but it plays like recycled Graham Greene.
Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) sees his wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), and her driver, Arnold (Hubert Koundé), off at an airport. She's supposed to be back in a couple of days, but pretty shots of an overturned Jeep and flying birds tell us she won't be returning.
Quayle is officially notified by a colleague, Sandy (Danny Huston, redeeming himself after some dismal recent work), who seems to relish giving him too much information: "White woman, black driver.... They shared a room."
The next half-hour is mostly flashbacks, showing Tessa meeting Justin by mouthing off after he gives a boring lecture. An ineffectual minor diplomat, he's just filling in for his boss, Bernard Pellegrin (Bill Nighy), but she takes him to task for a bunch of issues, and so of course they wind up in bed. (Movies don't live on politics alone.)
Tessa follows up by asking Justin to take her to Africa with him. That she has her own agenda makes it look like she's using him, but apparently there's genuine love between them as they marry and Tessa gets pregnant.
Justin is led to question Tessa's fidelity by rumors about her and Arnold (who turns out to be gay) and later indications of something between her and Sandy– but she may have been using him, too.
Like a true reluctant action hero, Justin declares at one point, "I have to finish what she started." Along with him we gradually learn Tessa was investigating drug trials in which multinational companies (U.K. and Swiss-Canadian- the U.S. gets off easy this time) test tuberculosis drugs, in anticipation of a global epidemic, on African AIDS patients. "Disposable drugs for disposable patients," someone says.
Like many spy thrillers, a plethora of characters and locations are employed to keep the audience confused.
To keep women interested, there are far more flashbacks than necessary to happy times between Tessa and Justin. For the men, there are action sequences, including a vehicular chase that's exciting and well photographed but turns out to be a silly red herring.
Although most of the story takes place in Kenya, Sudanese bandits are brought into play to create an action climax with gallop-by shootings and burnings that force evacuation of a village.
If Meirelles hopes to be the next Costa-Gavras, he came closer to the best work of the master of the political thriller with City of God. In The Constant Gardener he makes too many commercial compromises and emerges with a viable product that demonstrates his skill only intermittently.