The Case of the Missing Spine

The Contant Gardener

The Constant Gardener made me wonder: How would I react to the movie if I didn’t find its central conceit credible? Here is a fiction film so fueled by indignation that it operates with a different set of rules from most features; instead of suspending your disbelief, you must engage your belief to buy it.

The movie concerns a conspiracy in which the British and Kenyan governments are in bed with a drug company that is killing African peasants. Instead of sending a flawed, lethal drug back to the lab for further, expensive development, the company is fudging the test results so it can be brought to market. Who cares if the world is less a few poor black people?

Ralph Fiennes, that’s who! And Rachel Weisz, too. But she gets killed — nay, murdered! — and it’s up to Ralph to unravel this nefarious web of evil and expose the corruption to the whole world!

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Constant Gardener was directed by Fernando Meirelles (City of God) and based on a novel by John Le Carré, and it has a discomfiting mix of passion and indifference. It’s a thriller that’s not very thrilling, a political work that’s maddeningly vague, and a relationship movie in which critical, thorny issues of trust are resolved hilariously quickly. Structurally, the movie can’t decide if it wants to tell the story in bits and pieces (as it does at the outset) or sequentially (as it does for its second half). It makes the audience work hard to keep up with it but then tacks on a ludicrous and tone-deaf crowd-pleasing finale. It’s 95 percent of the way to being a rich, provocative movie, but like undercooked poultry, nearly done looks, feels, and tastes very wrong. (And it makes you sick.)

Ralph plays a British diplomat with a bureaucrat’s mindset, intent above all on going through the “proper channels.” He falls in love with a firecracker activist, and when he’s shipped to Africa, she marries him, accompanies him, and starts causing trouble. When she ends up dead and her doctor friend (and lover?) ends up missing, Ralph is shaken out of his comfortable existence and forced to face the possibility of dirty deeds done (but probably not dirt cheap) by his government and, perhaps, his woman. Of course, his life is now in danger.

If it sounds like the vaguely-anti-corporate politics of The Fugitive mixed with the white-man-in-a-dangerous-foreign-land formula of The Quiet American and The Year of Living Dangerously, that’s about right. It’s taut, efficient, noble, and sturdy, with some lovely shadings and ambiguities around the edges, particularly in its treatments of complicated relationships.

One curious thing about The Constant Gardener is that there’s little mystery. The high-level conspiracy is a given — the details must be worked out, but it’s never in doubt — and the question of infidelity is dispensed with quickly but never conclusively resolved. In its place is a barely contained rage about the disposability of life in the world today. The last shots in the movie are of smiling, joyful African children, and the message couldn’t be more blunt, directed at both drug companies and an apathetic populace: This is who you’re killing. This is who we need to save from your boundless greed.

It doesn’t work. It cannot work. The movie is based on a gross miscalculation on the part of its writers and filmmakers. Without narrative suspense, the only thing the movie hopes to do is make you angry. But how can you get worked up about an imaginary tragedy? How can you get pissed about fiction? The conspiracy in The Constant Gardener is absolutely plausible, and most of us think that similar abuses of power in Third World countries are commonplace.

But anger is pointless if it’s not given a target. At whom am I supposed to direct my rage? FDH, a pharmaceutical company that doesn’t exist? The movie left me with a sharp desire to do something, but no direction.

I see two explanations: Either the narrative is based on a specific case, or it’s completely made-up.

If it’s just a story, it is simply distasteful, exploiting the suffering of the poor for the entertainment of sophisticated movie audiences.

If it has a basis in fact, the movie (and perhaps the book on which it’s based) is cowardly. It has the gravity of a muckraking documentary but doesn’t have the courage to name names. We know enough about corporations and the lengths they’ll go for a buck that this seems the most likely scenario.

And in that way, Ralph’s character is a good comparison for the movie. The Constant Gardener is about a guy who finally finds a spine. And he’s part of a film that never does.

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