Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz) is not your standard activist. She won’t be satisfied by simply standing on protest lines – she must be where the action is, and for her it’s in disease infested Kenya. When a pharmaceutical company sets up shop there to distribute a prototypical drug to the people, Tessa becomes involved in a conspiracy that will eventually costs her her life.
After Tessa turns up dead – and this is no spoiler – her death is featured in the opening scenes of the film, husband Justin (Ralph Fien…es) delves into her world – a world he has learned to accept as a diplomat – to find the reason behind her death. Upon his discovery he learns that his wife was an entirely different woman than the one he knew, a woman who regularly hid things from him. But why did she keep secrets? Was she having an affair? Was she protecting Justin from a life she knew he would not sympathize with as a government worker?
The Constant Gardener is a fine film, and one of the year’s best. But is it among the very best? As I write this review, it’s nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Picture will probably get some nominations when the Academy unveils their nominations in a few weeks. However, I must say I disagree with the accolades. Of the films nominated for Golden Globes, I would pick 2 or 3 films over this one.
Although I haven’t seen Syriana yet, a lot of the reviews critical of that film suggest that Syriana is all politics and little character or motivation. Although the exact same thing can’t be said about The Constant Gardener, I think the film ultimately suffers a similar fate. No matter what it says about the situation in Kenya, the film fails to deliver a plot that is moving enough to grab the viewer and pull them into the world in which Justin is involved. Does it pose some very tough questions about the situation in Kenya and the ways big business exploits the suffering population? Yes – but so can a newspaper article, something speaking solely about the issue without the hindrance of characters’ motivations. Not that the characters in the film are a hindrance, the love story is actually very moving. It’s the mystery surrounding Tessa’s death that fails to arouse.
The film does work despite this, mostly because director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) fills each scene with tons of paranoia. So much so, it practically oozes from the screen itself. We do get the feeling that the bad guys are everywhere, and listening in on every word being exchanged between Justin and the person he’s trying to get information from. But the mystery behind Tessa’s death is all dig and no treasure. By the time we get the answers we’ve been waiting for, the film has shifted its gears to become more of a statement film, and the questions we want answered come across as more of an afterthought than payoff.
Despite its shortcomings, The Constant Gardner is chock full of solid performances from some of the finest thespians from across the pond. Rachel Weisz does a wonderful job creating a character who will do just about anything to make a difference in Kenya, and Ralph Fiennes does an equally fine job of creating a character who despite his normally cold and distant profession, comes to understand his wife’s calling and understand the woman she was, even though she may be different from the woman he knew.
That said, I do need to give this film another look. There is a lot thrown at the viewer to digest, and it can be hard to navigate through character names and motives. The accents can also be hard to understand as well, which also presents a challenge. But no one can question the film’s quality. It’s very good. But just how good?
The Constant Gardener is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The image is sharp, but consistently shrouded in a blanket of light grain, especially in darker scenes. The colors are dull to add effect to certain scenes, and the disc really shines during scenes in sunburnt Kenya. A fine looking disc if you don’t mind a little grain every now and then.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is the disc’s strongest trait. Although the film is primarily dialogue driven, scenes with action will bring your viewing room to life with sound. The bass is low and deep, especially during the thumping musical score, and the surrounds are surprisingly given a fair amount of work.
- Deleted Scenes – here we have 3 or 4 deleted scenes. While they may slow down the flow of the film, they shed some much needed light on the plot.
- Extended Scene – an extended scene involving a Kenyan play featured in the film.
- Embracing Africa: Filming in Kenya – here the filmmakers discuss shooting on location in Kenya as opposed to South Africa, where most films are shot due to accessibility and safety.
- John Le Carre: From Page to Screen – in this featurette the author of The Constant Gardener gives the film his endorsement and describes the process of writing the book.
- Anatomy of a Global Thriller: Behind the scenes of The Constant Gardener – a behind the scenes look with cast and crew of the film, discussing characters and plot.
The Constant Gardener will look good in your collection, and I recommend owning it as opposed to renting it as you will want to revisit this film more than once to fully digest it. The disc looks and sounds good too, and the extras will satisfy your appetite for knowledge. While a commentary with director Fernando Meirelles would have been the proverbial cherry on top, what is presented is presented well.
Special Features List
- Deleted Scenes
- Extended Scene
- Embracing Africa: Filming in Kenya
- John Le Carre: From Page to the Screen
- Anatomy of a Global Thriller: Behind the Scenes of The Constant Gardener