An Aug. 31 Style review of "The Constant Gardener" misspelled the title of John le Carre's novel "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." (Published 9/1/2005)
John le Carre, the great British espionage novelist, is an expert on betrayal. And why shouldn't he be? Moviemakers have betrayed him endlessly.
Happily, that is not the case with "The Constant Gardener," which Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles has turned lean, swift, disturbing and powerful, as driven by great performances.
What an adult pleasure: Never cheap, wise in the ways of the heart, able to keep a number of balls in the air without letting them blur into incoherence, evocative of a hellish, desperately damaged place and gripping as a pinched nerve, "The Constant Gardener" is certainly the best movie of the summer for selective moviegoers. Good heavens, it even has a car chase, a gun battle and an upper-class twit getting royally reamed on his own petard! What jolly fun! It's the most fun le Carre has had at the movies since his tight little "Spy Who Came In From the Cold" became a flicker back in 1965.
Meirelles's film -- from a script by Jeffrey Caine that ably tames the novel's many tendrils into a straight-ahead progress -- watches the gardener's progress. The gardener is Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), better known as Poor Justin. Poor Justin, a minor figure in British diplomatic circles in Africa and a constant toiler in the mud amid buds and flowers in actual fact, is poor because of that awful woman he married, the flamboyant gadfly Tessa (Rachel Weisz), beautiful, tempestuous, "concerned" in the worst possible way and -- how shall we put this delicately -- involved with others of the British High Commission in Kenya (an ex-British colony) in certain ways that produce unsavory rumors.
But now Tessa, and one of her many presumed lovers, the African doctor Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde), have been murdered way up-country, on some feckless do-gooder's mission that, even if successful, wouldn't have amounted to a hill of beans against the great mountain of despair, corruption, violence and indifference that is so much of today's Africa. Actually, shouldn't dear old Justin count himself lucky to be shed of such a clearly inappropriate life mate? If he'd just quiet down, keep the old upper lip stiff as a piece of gunmetal, which would have the additional benefit of keeping his mouth shut, things would be just fine.
But of course Justin can't keep his mouth shut, or his upper lip stiff or his eye on the ball or his foot to the pedal or any of that stuff that really is of no help to him but greatly eases the awkwardness felt by everyone else. Before you know it, timid, quiet, pale, decent, polite Justin is off on a crusade.
This is certainly the best role that Fiennes has played since "The English Patient." Never a tower of masculine power and violence, he's instead based his career on more cerebral roles, but here, showing us a passive man seared by trauma into action, he's excellent, growing incrementally in strength, finding courage he never thought he had, turning sly, cunning and clever, forging ahead to confront a heart of conspiracy.
The idea of his journey, of course, is knowledge: He begins with everyone's theory of Tessa, which is that she was a little daft in her need to fix the unfixable world or die crying, and that a function of her dysfunctionality was promiscuity. Justin accepts that most pathetic of male stereotypes, the public cuckold; it seems that it was the price he paid for the love of the untamable Tessa. (Le Carre, by the way, is a specialist in that kind of betrayal, too; remember that his great hero George Smiley, of "Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy," was the most famous cuckold in modern literature.)
Justin starts going through Tessa's things, investigating the nature of her relationships, and makes small discoveries that suggest that if his own view of Tessa was sentimentalized, other views of Tessa were cynicized, and that people -- driven by jealousy, anger and the hothouse internal ecosystem of a diplomatic mission that is sealed shut and unloved by its host country -- had the need to believe the worst about her, and the best about themselves. But possibly they're the ones who are deluded and he's the one, a naive and sentimental lover, who sees the truth.
Le Carre, having made his reputation during the Cold War (which he chronicled brilliantly, nuance by nuance), seemed to lose his way in its aftermath. I can just see him turning to Mrs. le C. as images of the Berlin Wall tumbling down came bleeding across the telly and exclaiming bitterly to the tune of world peace and nuclear survival, "I just got screwed!" Writers!
But in this book, and in Meirelles's version of it, he finds a new enemy that seems to animate him and the story profoundly: big pharmaceuticals. The conspiracy turns on a plot that links a seemingly generously donated drug to an experimental drug with a higher-than-expected mortality rate. It's all based on the cynical idea that death rates among Africa's uncounted and possibly uncountable millions mean little against what might be a greater good. Whether or not you enjoy the film will almost certainly depend on your assessment of this charge. I can only say that it's already drawn some blood: My e-mail is full of anguished lobbying from pharmaceutical industry advocacy groups. (God, I love this filthy town!)
More important, as a device for a story, and the context for a conspiracy, the charge is effective and the story based upon it crackles. It follows as Justin essentially, like Kipling's Kim before him, goes underground and is hunted by thugs to keep him from discovering a truth that the British establishment -- represented by Bill Nighy at his effete-WASPy best -- wants buried.
This leads to all sorts of global huggermugger, near-run escapes, clandestine night meetings, all the traditional espionage elements. But one thing that sets the film apart is Meirelles's extremely empathetic feel for the squalor and the tragedy of the bloody Third World. His great film was "City of God," which captured the vitality and violence of a great slum in Rio. He brings that same comfort level and toughness of vision: His Africa is tragic, except when it's beautiful, and savage except when it's grotesque, and a landscape of exploitation for sharpies of every color and shade and also a land of hope and love.
"The Constant Gardener" isn't quite a great espionage movie or a great Africa movie, but in a summer of heat and wind, it's the next best thing.
The Constant Gardener (129 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for nudity, profanity and scenes of extreme violence.