BY PATRICIA DRAZNIN
The big bad pharmaceuticals are at it again, this time dispensing experimental drugs in the villages of Africa. This romantic thriller involves more romance than thrills, but deserves credit for trying to entertain us with suspense and morality. I wish I could say it kept me on the edge of my seat. But honestly, I never got pulled into the story enough to care.
Based on the novel by John Le Carré, The Constant Gardener stars Ralph Fiennes as Justin Quayle, the quiet career diplomat who loves gardening, and Rachel Weisz as Justin’s wife Tessa, an outspoken activist against the establishment. Any establishment. The story opens in Kenya with Tessa departing on a junket with her local cohort Arnold, but Justin is called soon after to identify her body. Tessa has been murdered. Boo-hoo?
We flash back to the first meeting of Tessa and Justin, followed by its consummation, followed by Tessa’s strong suggestion that Justin take her with him to Africa as his wife. This was problematic, introducing us to pivotal characters so superficially that they barely exist. In Tessa’s case it’s deliberate; we are not supposed to know her until the movie ends. But how about Justin? Anybody. The Key Grip. It’s lonely out here; give us some reason to watch the movie.
In Kenya, the lovely Tessa becomes a rebel advocate for the natives, whom she believes are victims of a drug conspiracy that is costing their lives. Her fearlessness and flippancy are the stuff that only fiction is made of, so she remains a genuine cardboard personality. The story reveals choice details in flashbacks and then proceeds forward. Justin begins to investigate Tessa’s murder and her secret activities, risking his own life to learn the truth and to understand the wife he hardly got to know. Welcome to the club, Justin.
The strengths of this movie lie in its fine cast and its colorful African backdrop. And it dares to shoot in raw lighting or whatever cinematographers call it, the kind that shows real faces with freckles and flaws. Perhaps Le Carré’s bestseller succeeded where the movie did not. But the whimsical treatment of a heavy topic took the life out of a potentially engaging film.