The difference in outlooks between Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) and his late wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), can be summed up in a conversation they have while driving on the squalid streets of Kenya’s capital where Justin, a British diplomat, is stationed. Tessa wants him to stop and give a lift back to her village to a woman whose daughter has just died. Justin refuses, saying he can’t help everyone. Tessa replies that he can help this one. They are seeing the same big picture, but their responses have everything to do with the mind set that they bring to it. He’s a government official whose usual haunts are the embassies and chic conferences where policy is made, she’s an aid worker who spends her time in the trenches seeing where those policies actually lead. They are a metaphor for the world at large, and what happens when good men and women, stand by with their eyes blithely closed to what it right in front of them.
It starts with a tragedy when Tessa, on an aid trip in the bush, is brutally murdered. The African doctor who accompanied her is missing and a suspect in the killing. Rumors begin to spread about what exactly the relationship was between Tessa and the doctor. Other rumors spread, too, about the state of her sanity and about why she was killed. Was it a lover’s quarrel or something much more nefarious involving what she discovered while researching mysterious deaths among the native population and was that discovery the product of a brilliant mind coming slowly unhinged mind or actual evidence of an awful and deadly conspiracy?
For those of us who worried that John LeCarre’s career would be over with the end of the Cold War, THE CONSTANT GARDENER, and the film on which it is based, is a timely surprise. It’s a taut, intelligent thriller that delves into the motives, good and bad, that fuel human passions or the lack thereof. Set in Africa, it deals with the globe’s new nemesis to all that is good and holy, the bottom line and the multi-national corporations willing to do anything and sacrifice anyone to maximize profits. The bald cynicism makes you almost wistful for mere political ideology gone wrong.
The tale is peopled with classic LeCarre characters, the cynical cogs in the government machine exemplified by Pete Postlethwaite as a doctor seeking redemption among refugees in the most remote spot in Kenya that he can find, Bill Nighy as an imperious high commissioner in Kenya, and the always charismatic Danny Huston as the charming but empty co-worker who breaks the news to Justin about Tessa and who may or may not have done more than just flirt with her when she was alive.
What makes the film more than a cold exercise in intrigue and finger-pointing is the palpably tender love story between Justin and Tessa, told in flashback and given context by what Justin learns as he investigates what led to her death. From their first, inauspicious meeting where she calls him to account after an official speech to their first, playful and sweet coupling, to the tangential intersections of their very separate lives in Africa, the bond, particularly the one Justin feels for Tessa is wildly romantic while being at the same time very, very real. While her motives in coming with him and tolerating the restrictive social duties of a diplomat’s wife are nebulous, his affection is enough to make him tolerate her the outbursts about social justice that make his colleagues speak darkly to him about doing a better job of controlling his wife. Fiennes, tentative and eager, and Weisz, fiery and kinetic, have never been better than they are bringing these passionate, flawed, but wholly decent human beings to life, which makes Justin’s decision to throw away everything, including his comfortable world view, in order to get justice for Tessa, vitally necessary. He is not, in the final analysis, just looking for those responsible for her death, but for the person that Tessa herself really was, the love of his life, whom he only starts to know after she is gone.
The careful plotting baits the audience with its own basest instincts masquerading as common sense and then, like Justin, forces it to rise above them, until the underlying pattern is revealed and the misconceptions are revealed as the product of preconceived notions that mirror those of the world at large. The complicated plot gradually, teasingly, doles out answers that inevitably build to more questions and ultimately a looming sense of the sinister that become more pronounced with every unappetizing discovery
THE CONSTANT GARDENER is a thriller in the classic mold, and can be enjoyed merely on that level. But to miss the larger stories, the base machinations and the overwhelming power of love, would be a crime.