Year Released: 2005
Directed by: Fernando Meirelles
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston, Hubert Kounde, Bill Nighy
(R, 129 min.)
"‘tis an unweeded garden/ That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature/ Possess it merely." William Shakespeare
The Constant Gardener should have taken heed of its title and done some much needed weeding. Its coarse thicket of comfortable clichés nearly chokes out the light and beauty in this heavy-handed political thriller.
These clichés are not unlike intoxicating plants brought home from nurseries, so innocent and self-contained in their plastic-coated cubes of earth. A few seasons later they have literally taken over the garden, their delicate colors now a hardened hue as they sprawl idly into the more delicate beds that adjoin them.
They are the usual suspects – greedy drug companies, inept and corrupt governments, innocent African victims, idealistic heiresses, and crusading physicians – to name a few. All like those nursery specimens, compelling and credible, so persuasive in making their conspiracy theories come to life.
Justin Quayle, played by truly gifted Ralph Fiennes, is the title character who seems more attune to his plant menagerie than the conditions in Kenya where he is stationed as part of the British High Command. So too in regard to his wife, Tessa, strident and socially conscious in a way that only high born wealth can spawn. While Fiennes anchors the movie with the self-effacing stoicism of those RAF pilots of World War II, Tessa is on shiftier sands. She teases the audience and her spouse as well by morphing abruptly from one female archetype to another: shrew, helpless maiden in distress, seductress, earth mother, unfaithful wife, and platonic ideal. Which are we to believe?
The more nuanced part of the film explores Justin Quayle’s decent and unrelenting search for this truth behind the life and death of his lovely Tessa. Outward pretenses and simmering suspicions slowly give way to a very different yet believable human drama. To keep us as off balance as poor Justin, director Meirelles pinballs time and place as the story emerges from a purposely-disjointed retelling of it. Almost as soon as their stormy meeting and not too believable acquiescence into coupledom is told, we learn of Tessa’s violent death in the plains of Africa.
In his search for the truth, Justin must finally confront the small suspicions his proper English diplomat persona has filed away in the classified section of his brain. Tessa’s death finally gives him the clearance to explore their ugly ramifications. Her constant companionship with handsome African doctor Arnold Bluhm, a fellow crusader for the eradication of AIDS, seems innocent enough until Quayle accidentally comes upon an e-mail asking Tessa, ”What were you and Arnold doing in the Nairobi Hilton Friday night? Does Justin know?”
Fellow diplomat and family friend Sandy Woodrow seems as moved as Justin by Tessa’s death – it is he and not Justin who becomes physically ill after identifying her charred corpse. But a letter unearthed after Tessa’s death suggests a more sinister component to Sandy’s tears.
While he plays the human love story component with a deft hand, Meirelles lacks that same touch with the political conspiracy that surrounds it. From Tessa’s initial diatribe about killing civilians in Iraq to the tale’s easy indictment of global drug companies --which one character ranks just below drug runners -- the template is about as light as the relentless pounding anvil that ended Dragnet every week.
Recent news hints that certain drugs like Vioxx were rushed to market in spite of some questionable test results. But it is quite a leap to then presume, as the film does, that drug companies would purposely pile up and then bury the bodies – all of them African, of course, -- of a considerable amount of test failures.
The mere fact that drug companies are out to make a profit, as horrible as that sounds to many, is the very reason why such action would be illogical. Other bodies would soon follow the African ones as the drug opened to market, and all that the company could look forward to would be endless litigation and huge compensatory costs.
Add to that a timely ironic zinger. Wednesday, September 7th, approximately one week after the release of The Constant Gardener, a film which bashes drug companies and celebrates the UN, we find the following newspaper story: “A yearlong investigation of the Oil for Food Program issued a strong indictment of the United Nations and its top leadership, concluding that they tolerated corruption and allowed Saddam Hussein’s government to pocket $10.2 billion.” How many children died because the UN did not see that this money went to provide them food and medicine?
I’m still waiting for Hollywood or the BBC to make a movie about this tragedy. But I won’t hold my breath. It’s so much easier to blame the usual suspects.
One of the more dramatic African scenes in The Constant Gardener is at the very sedate garden party hosted by the elite British High Command there. The lavish cocktails and canapés, the polished limousines that deliver tuxedoed diplomats, businessman, and Kenya government leaders to rooms that gleam with polished mahogany and crystal are in stark contrast to the colorful squalor of tin shanties where most of the poor must live.
Tessa, at least eight and one-half months pregnant, is much comfortable in the later, climbing over precarious bridges as she encourages these adopted countrymen to be tested for AIDS.
Her only pleasure at this stilted affair is to embarrass the moneyed crowd into pledging more toward AIDS eradication and treatment. She does this with splendid finesse, dishing out her verbal taunts as smoothly as the meticulous waiters do the hors d'oeuvres.
Too bad she is too adamant to stop and enjoy the party, though. The food really is delicious, especially our recipe for Oysters Mombasa listed below.
Baked with a Wine Garlic Sauce
Yield: 8 portions (4 oysters per person)
Nowhere are oysters more delicious than on the east coast of Africa (except for the tiny Olympia oysters you get at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco or in New Orleans).
In Kenya, the oysters are opened and each one goes on its own tiny china ramekin or tiny container which looks like a miniature coaster. Twelve of these little dishes are placed on a large platter with a bowl of dark, dark-red cocktail sauce and slices of lemon. Mombasa, that lovely city on the coast of Kenya, boasts the very best of these small oysters.
Open 32 SMALL OYSTERS (Bluepoints or Olympias if possible).
Leave them on the half shell and place on baking sheets.
Wine Garlic Sauce:
- Combine: 1/2 cup MELTED BUTTER
- 4 cloves GARLIC very finely minced
- 1 cup CHABLIS
- 4 Tbs. CHOPPED PARSLEY
- 1 tsp. SALT
- 1 tsp. FRESHLY GROUND PEPPER
- few drops TABASCO
Ladle half of above sauce (1 tsp. per oyster) on each one.
Bake at 350'F. for 6 to 8 minutes.
Ladle the remaining sauce uniformly over the oysters again.
Serve immediately, four per person, with LEMON WEDGES on a 9 inch plate (or on hot rock salt if available).
Recipe Source: Kenya: Menus and Recipes from Africa