The destruction of the Berlin Wall signaled not only the demise of Soviet Communism and the end of Cold War, but also, for many literary commentators, the death of the spy novel and consequently, of the career of its most distinguished contemporary practitioner, John le Carré.
That structure had served as the great monument to the protracted conflict between East and West, an appropriately ugly symbol for the war in the shadows of dangerous borders and the crepuscular world of personal and national betrayal that appear constantly in his work. The author, however, defied the critics in a series of outstanding post-Cold War novels by continuing his brilliant examination of the moral stagnation of governments, the corruption of capitalism, the manipulative power of international organizations, and the cruelty and injustice of political leaders in all parts of the globe.
One of those novels, The Constant Gardener, now adapted for the screen, demonstrates John le Carré's continuing concern for the situation of individuals caught in the web of collusion between governments and multinational corporations. The film displays a particularly telling relevance to events in our own time in its depiction of the suffering of desperately ill and impoverished Africans through the machinations of a giant pharmaceutical company. It also, sadly, suggests the terrible cost in human life that such companies extract from the poor, the weak, and the disenfranchised.
The movie essentially revolves around a murder and a mystery, the killing of Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz), a young aid worker found dead in a remote area of Kenya, where her husband Justin (Ralph Fiennes) serves as a member of the diplomatic corps. As part of her work with Kenyan women and children, Tessa had driven to the place with a doctor friend to investigate the use of a particular drug among AIDS patients; she had also sought some damning information that would reveal the nexus of corruption that resulted in the drug-related deaths of thousands of Africans. Suspecting that Tessa's death was the work of thugs employed by a giant international conglomerate, Justin embarks on a quest for the people behind her murder.
His journey takes him first to England, then to Germany, back to Africa, and finally, full circle to the very spot in Kenya where his wife met her death. In the process of his investigation he encounters obstacles at every turn --- a canceled passport, dark threats, a vicious beating, and warnings from various representatives of both the pharmaceutical firms and his government. He comes to comprehend the extent and virulence of the conspiracy that caused Tessa's death and now threatens him; he further comes to understand the depth of the love he shared with his wife.
The director eliminates a good deal of action and character from Le Carré's long, eventful, and complex novel, but retains its spirit and meaning as well as something of the author's typical method. Like the book, the picture jumps back and forth in time, for example, as Justin recalls various moments in his life with his beloved Tessa, and allows the audience to reconstruct the history of their relationship and something of the breadth and complication of the evolving conspiracy.
The progress of Justin's odyssey, in addition, reveals a view of Africa as real as today's bleak television news reports of sick and hungry refugees, whole populations ravaged by illness and starvation, and the attendant neglect of the more fortunate peoples of the world.
Ralph Fiennes makes an appropriate Justin Quayle, a gentle, decent, diffident man whom events and grief transform into a sort of missionary for a cause, an impassioned idealist like his wife; Fiennes conveys anguish perhaps more convincingly than any actor around, which makes him a most appropriate character for the fiction of John le Carré.
In keeping with the author's own care with the living details of his world, the director filmed on location, making East Africa and its inhabitants come fully alive in all their vitality, beauty, squalor, and tragedy. The Brazilian director, Fernando Meirelles, brings to the elegant prose of le Carré the eye and experience of a non-European from a developing nation; his picture does justice to the intelligence and emotion of the novel.
The Constant Gardener (R) directed by Fernando Meirelles, is playing at Culver Ridge, Henrietta 18, Little Theater, Pittsford Plaza, Webster 12, Tinseltown.