Title: The Constant Gardener
Year of Release: 2005
Date Viewed: September 5th, 2011
MPAA Rating: R
My viewing of The Constant Gardener felt like ordering a restaurant's specialty burger for the first time. The visible details promise a familiar experience even though the marketing claims a novel one awaits. But it's still something new and it's manufactured in capable hands, so why not try it?
The Constant Gardener is an intriguing story sandwiched between two run-of-the-mill plot devices and wrapped in a disposable marketing label. Ralph Fiennes' photo-captured image on the DVD cover is typical of spy thrillers. Nothing to write home about yet. So let's look inside. The usual suspects are there. Unlikely romance. Disappearances. Murders. Conspiracies. All the reasons it attracted attention in the first place. Again nothing special but there remains the hunch that there's something worthwhile beyond the goal of passing time. At some point in the middle of things there is the subtle realization of a good decision.
The first eye-rolling plot device is how the lives of our two main protagonists twine into connection. Despite being a far distance from humorous territory, the movie borrows from the romantic comedy playbook. Guy and girl dislike each other at the first meeting. One makes a fool of him/herself. They're amused and before you know it are both in bed together. Apparently a bad first impression is the way to your soul mate's heart. But there's no overbearing interest about why they meet. The focus is on why they remained together even when one spirit goes missing.
Ralph Fiennes plays a British diplomat named Justin Quayle who falls for a humanitarian for Kenya named Tessa and played by Rachel Weisz. They have pledged themselves to combat the plight of third world countries through their respective ways; the difference being Tessa prefers to be near the front and most perilous lines. It's the selflessness that makes her an admirable character and leads to the early screen revelation of her death.
Despite the rocky road of their marriage, Justin is devastated by the loss and initially skeptical of the tragedy's meaningless circumstances. The discovery of a written letter confirms a deeper operation and quells suspicions of Tessa's romance only being a career power play. Thus begins a one-man quest for answers and justice. One that leads Justin to the same chaos that claimed Tessa's life and now threatens his own.
The Constant Gardener gets its name through the frequent use of plant imagery. Justin is shown tending to his garden much the same way Tessa treats her human patients; through gentle care and compassion. It's a stark contrast to the enemy she fights against; human experimentation on new corporate drugs. Inspired by real life similar controversies, the test subjects are the poor slum residents of African communities considered expendable by the companies that set up the process. Although it has the potential to help cure complex diseases such as tuberculosis, the ethics are called into question because of the manipulative or absent patient informed consent. Some experiments are carried out despite the strong projections of fatal results. The mindset is that it's acceptable for people with no promising future to have theirs snuffed out completely for the better good of science. A most heartbreaking moment forces Justin to treat an African resident as an expendable number for the sake of preserving his party's lives.
Until the mid-way point, The Constant Gardener opts to rapidly jump forward and backward through the timeline. This is common and fitting for stories that deal with the loss of a loved one. But this movie almost completely stumbles from the gate because of the misguided efforts to appear fancy. Too much time is wasted trying to understand the narrative, resulting in the loss of opportunity to be enthralled by it. There is redemption in the thrilling second half that's dominated by Ralph Fiennes' gift for drawing sympathy to his characters.
The other run-of-the-mill plot device left to mention appears at the film's final moments. It's all too convenient, was probably taken from that same romantic comedy playbook and was most certainly there to serve the domestic audiences' desire for full closure. Let's just say the real story is far from over. But at the same time, like a mirror effect, there's an image of sheer beauty that can only come from the work of a professional artist. The tagline "Love. At Any Cost." is lived up to. For a good long moment, the movie's flaws can be easily forgotten and the conflicting emotions of heartbreak and hope are allowed to reach their prime. Like finding a true love, it's something worth waiting for.