The Constant Gardener


con ▪ stant
(of a person) unchangingly faithful and dependable.

After you’ve seen The Constant Gardener, the title is beautiful, simple and poignant. Beforehand, it’s a pain in the arse. Hey, I heard this movie’s good. What’s it called? The Constant Gardener. So it’s about a gardener? Well, there’s probably some kind of gardener, but I heard it’s a political thriller. Are you sure? It sounds like he’s constantly gardening. Doesn’t leave much room for thrills. No, no, it’s based on a book by John Le Carré. Maybe you’ve gotten it mixed up with some kind of Gardening Australia movie. For reasons like these, I didn’t catch The Constant Gardener at the cinema. But I recently managed to see it, having been threatened with renting Doom at the video store.

The story concerns Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), who is indeed a gardener, but also works in the British High Commission in Nairobi. He’s married to the delightful, idealistic Tessa (Rachel Weisz), who has followed him to Africa and become very involved in local affairs — so involved in fact that she’s turned up dead. Suddenly Justin finds himself searching through his life for the threads that he’d never noticed before, and sees that Tessa had gotten involved in things far larger than he’d ever imagined…

The film is a thriller, but also a love story, even though Tessa dies within the first five minutes of the film. As is usual in a political thriller, our hero is trying to uncover truths in a world of lies, but as he goes, he finds answers for the big question that truly plagues him; did his wife really love him? It sounds a little cheesy when written, but as a way to give a film like this a bit more heart, it’s a brilliantly crafted thread. The romantic and political elements only ever compliment each other — mainly because the very character of Tessa is so intrinsic to the mystery.

The film benefits greatly from its setting; the African landscapes are never less than amazing, and the final scene in particular managing a stately beauty. Sometimes a film like this might feel like it was taking itself too seriously, or that it was lost in its character’s manipulations. One shot of Ralph Fiennes alone on an African beach puts everything in perspective. The Constant Gardener is constantly avoiding the clichés of the genre; there’s one moment when I was convinced we were having a car chase, but it turned out not to be the case.

The film has many strengths, but perhaps the greatest is Ralph Fiennes’ performance. There’s not a step of the way when you don’t feel like you’re inside his head, humble and awkward, yet determined and constant. I can’t remember the last time that I was so invested in a movie’s protagonist — his love for his wife and his emerging morality made me dread the possibility that he might fail. Justin isn’t the most likely hero to win against impossible odds, but he’s certainly one of the most deserving. Once or twice, the camera settles on Fiennes’ face, and the emotion there is always astonishingly powerful. Weisz gets less to do — her character is revealed at first through flashbacks, and later through second-hand accounts — but she succeeds at being the central, intriguing, figure in the film, around which everyone orbits. And I have to mention Danny Huston’s deliciously sleazy turn as Sandy Woodrow, who becomes a brilliant foil for Fiennes’ austere hero.

The Constant Gardener also has a message to deliver, and it does it without being preachy and without being hackneyed. The danger of having pharmaceutical companies deciding the fates of so many lives cannot be too highly stressed, and the story presents a shocking but plausible hypothetical problem. One film, I suppose, can’t do much — but any increase in awareness might contribute to pressure for some kind of check on the surprisingly heartless business practices in the third world. Maybe. Hopefully. At the very least, The Constant Gardener is entertaining, moving, and educational — the ultimate trifecta of cinema?

I can't go home. Tessa was my home. — Justin Quayle

2 Responses to “The Constant Gardener”

  1. Ok I only skimmed your review (ill read it later), but I thought Tessa was an awful character (is this movie a true story, I think its based on a true story?). Anyways how anyone could marry her astounds me – I like women that are stong minded but she’s got balls that girl. Although I saw it a while ago and can’t remember it very well, I thought it repeated itself a bit, switching back and forth between flashbacks.

    Personally speaking I generally like movies a bit simpler on the surface, a similar film would be Hotel Rwanda, which is simple elegant and powerful, while like you said The Constant Gardener is deep, educational and powerful.

    I did like some parts of the film for example the movie did a good job of showing Ralph Fiennes’ character’s transformation from a weak timid man to a man with deeper inner strength. Id recommend watching it but you’ve got to be in the mood. 3 out of 5 for me

    And just to compare…

    Hotel Rwanda 4.5/5

  2. I have a natural admiration for anyone with the conviction to go to Africa and try to help. If only I were not a selfish, comfortable bugger. So Tessa had me right there. She had a softer side. I liked how she was all embarrassed after her outburst. Ralph Fiennes’ development is definitely the cornerstone of the film, but I thought his love for Tessa, and insecurity, wouldn’t have worked without Tessa being such a strong and willful character.

    For all my reviews I assume the viewer will be in the mood. Don’t watch films unless you’re in the mood! Haven’t caught Hotel Rwanda yet. I’ll get right on it.