Passion for the Truth

Issue section: 

Review of 'The Constant Gardener', director Fernando Meirelles

The news in recent weeks has been dominated by the threat of an avian flu pandemic, which could kill millions worldwide without a coordinated global response. As I write, a spokesperson for the pharmaceutical giant which produces tamiflu, an anti-viral drug being stockpiled throughout the world to cope with the looming crisis, is on the radio. When the interviewer suggests that, of course, they wouldn't stand in the way of cheaper, generic copies of their drug being produced if it meant saving thousands of lives in the Third World, she can't give a straight answer: 'Well, it would take several years for any government or company to get through all the regulations required... No one has approached us to ask about this... Tamiflu is the best drug on the market at the moment...'

These attempts by the 'big pharma' to appear humanitarian, while their profit-chasing practices - and the complicity of governments, North and South - lead to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of people, are one of the key themes of The Constant Gardener. Based on John Le Carré's 2001 novel, the film takes all the passion and anger of the book and adds rich visuals - it was shot on location in Kenya - to produce a film which is both subdued and exciting, funny and extremely moving.

The director, Fernando Meirelles, is known for his debut feature about the Brazilian favelas, City of God. The Constant Gardener is his first English language production, and he was an inspired choice for the job. He takes Le Carré's moral outrage and intricate time-jumping plot and produces a fast moving, slightly less complicated but emotionally just as charged movie, with subtle, serious performances from the leads.

The story begins with Justin (Ralph Fiennes), a notoriously mild-mannered middle-ranking British diplomat stationed in Kenya, being informed of the violent murder of his young, politically active wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz). His British High Commission colleagues do everything they can to present Tessa's death as a crime of passion connected to one of her many presumed lovers, but Justin's faith in her forces him to pursue every avenue, leading him into a trail of cover-up and complicity by a pharmaceutical company, the Kenyan government and the British Foreign Office.

We meet Tessa in flashback as we follow Justin on his journey in her footsteps - investigating the dubious trials of a new anti-TB drug on the poor of Nairobi's slums. The first time they meet is a couple of years earlier, when Justin has just reluctantly given a standard diplomatic talk about foreign policy to a group of law students, of which Tessa is one. She jumps up to denounce his pathetic apology for Britain's illegal war on Iraq, justified by a tissue of lies, and embarked upon in the interests of big business and in total disregard for people's lives. A mutual respect and attraction begins to develop after the lecture, and to Justin's quiet amazement they soon find themselves married and heading for Africa.

Tessa is committed to uncovering the way in which big pharma use Africans as cheap guinea pigs for drugs which may later become profitable in the West. The scenes of Justin pushing through Kibera (the largest slum in Africa) desperately searching for anyone who may have met Tessa, or visiting the clinics where she observed practice, feel extremely real. And they are - they mostly portray non-actors going about their normal business.

Justin's growing love for Tessa is at the heart of the story. While to others they seemed wrong for each other, and while Tessa kept much of her work from Justin to protect him, in death she becomes his guiding moral force. He changes from the quiet, ultra-polite man more interested in tending his plants than reining in his 'wild' young wife (as the High Commission would have him do) into a man increasingly determined to complete the work Tessa started - and was killed for. Ralph Fiennes perfectly expresses this personal journey - ensuring that the film isn't simply a didactic rant against big business and government corruption.

There is a final payoff, one which ties neatly in with 2005 as 'Africa year'. On the eve of the G8 protests up in Gleneagles earlier this year, the BBC screened a film called The Girl in the Café. Directed by Richard 'Four Weddings' Curtis, it was a rather sickly fantasy involving a finance minister (played by Bill Nighy) meeting a young political activist who spurred him to make a speech at the Gordon Brown figure who really wanted to take on the US in the talks, but just needed a bit of encouragement. In The Constant Gardener Bill Nighy appears as Sir Bernard Pellegrin, top civil servant back in Whitehall - and top villain of the story. No more the dithering, foppish English gent, but the true, duplicitous face of a state machine geared towards backing up the interests of big business, whatever the human cost.