Sometimes a movie comes along and knocks the wind out of your sails. It's been a long, long time since one has done that to me (what can I say? I'm hard to surprise.) but The Constant Gardener left me floored, stunned, angry, and emotionally wrecked. In short, it kicked my teeth in and for that alone I loved it.
To say the least, the movie is an emotional drain as British assistant diplomat to Africa Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) and his activist wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) find themselves in the middle of a conspiracy involving governments and drug companies all vying for billions in profit at the expense of the African soul. Justin is blind to the damage his employers are wrecking on millions because he considers himself a small man, incapable of helping even one person. Tessa is convinced that one person can make a difference and her goal behind the scenes is to expose as much of the corruption as possible.
The first shocker is the opening car wreck where Tessa dies. She's killed in the opening frames and after a few flashbacks where we see the abrupt courtship between Justin and Tessa, the film follows Justin's increasingly frustrated attempts to uncover what his wife was working on. One of the many beauties of this film is seeing a man who dearly loved his wife try to make good by her by continuing her work. She may have kept him in the dark for her own reasons, some obvious, some not, but it remained important work nonetheless.
As Justin's understanding of Tessa's work grows, so does his fury. He's never blinded by rage though. If anything, the further down the rabbit hole he sinks the more determined he is to see things through regardless of what it costs him. He understands that a man with nothing to lose is someone to fear, and the Powers That Be soon understand that as well.
Weisz may have won an Oscar for her role here but I'll be damned if I can understand why. She and Fiennes have perfect chemistry, but she's always been sort of a blank to me. I've heard that criticism leveled at other starlets like Jessica Biel and while that's certainly true, I will accept that Weisz is the better actress between the two. She just never goes beyond the surface here, in my opinion, but obviously I'm in the minority since she's clutching her Oscar while I'm left dreaming of mine. She's strong enough as Tessa Quayle, a woman determined to change the world while protecting her husband from its dark secrets at the same time. Whenever Tessa and Justin are on screen together you can see and feel the spark between them, even if they don't initially understand it themselves. She even tells him early on, "You'll learn me."
Justin realizes after she's gone that he failed miserably to do so. In picking up the pieces of his life, he begins to realize that hers never really fit in with his. As he plunges headlong into his pursuit of what happened a funny thing happens. He falls in love with her all over again as he begins to understand what exactly she went up against and was crushed by. Fiennes pours his heart and soul into Justin and the final sequence is heartbreaking, the closing shot and final line of dialogue in particular. Fiennes shows how closed off Justin was in the beginning, and how he is steadily reborn through the course of the film. Fiennes anchors The Constant Gardener in such a strong way that even some of the flakier aspects of the plot are easily forgiven.
This is a stunning film from director Fernando Meirelles who knocks it way out of the park. Even though the film does sometimes show off for the sake of showing off, it still feels like a passion project. It also captures the sheer anger of John Le Carre's novel as it shows just how brutal and unforgiving life is in Africa, and just how far down its nose the drug companies view the continent. It's stunning stuff by itself, but the heart and soul of the film remains the love story between Justin and Tessa and that aspect is fantastic. See this film immediately if you get the chance.