The Constant Tongue Lashing of ‘The Constant Gardener’
THE CONSTANT GARDENER (Fernando Meirelles, Britain/Kenya, 2005, 4)
“I would like to suggest that the educated audience often uses ‘art’ films in much the same self-indulgent way as the mass audience uses the Hollywood ‘product,’ finding wish fulfillment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and liberalism.”
— Pauline Kael, “Fantasies of the Art-House Audience,” anthologized in 1965’s “I Lost It at the Movies”
When I went to see “The Constant Gardener” last weekend, the line ran around a whole block of Connecticut Avenue in Washington’s Upper Northwest, just southeast of Chevy Chase, i.e., a pretty wealthy neighborhood. The line was so long, I wasn’t sure at first that I’d get a good seat. But afterward, I couldn’t help but wonder how the people, who seemed to lap it up, made the money that let (most of) them live in such a tony town. Did they realize what they were seeing? There’s a line at the end that explicitly says the West’s wealth, theirs, is built on the blood (or “regrettable deaths”) of Africans. I suspect they did — the film is too crude not to “get” — but by focusing on white liberal “activists” as heroes and portraying political radicalism as sanctifying and justifying even beyond death, “The Constant Gardener” assuaged and denounced them at the same time. It convicted them of sin while showing the way to redemption — there is precedent for this being a fairly popular religious message, I believe.
But though I do detest “The Constant Gardener,” it isn’t a terrible movie — just a dishonest tongue-lashing-cum-tongue-bath. But stylistically, it’s a marvel — a feast for the eye and ear. If you can just ignore what’s happening and what we’re being told about it. The film begins with a sinister death in Kenya — of Tessa (Rachel Weisz), the wife of British diplomat-functionary Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), and her African driver. Because there are no accidents or coincidence in the conspiratorial universe of John Le Carre (the film is based on one of his novels), it’s all got to have something to do with her “activism” against drug companies in Africa.
Weisz is playing a more realistic and thus more annoying version of the art student she played in 2003’s “The Shape of Things.” In the first of a series of flashbacks that unspool while Fiennes is trying to Find Out Everything, the pair meet at a speech in which Justin, a British diplomat-functionary, cannot come up with a coherent sentence in defense of the Iraq War from a room-emptying harangue from Tessa. Justin is neither angry nor humiliated nor gloating, instead feeling sympathy for the noble but alone Tessa (“a prophet is not without honor … etc.”) and by sundown neither is wearing a stitch of clothing. Whaaaa … if making political enemies of liberal women was a route to the bedroom, I’d have been the Stud of All Time in college.
Director Fernando Meirelles’s constantly prowling camera hurtles through the action, shaking with anticipation, as if dancing along with the propulsive score eager to see what it’ll find next. It’s intimate, voyeuristic, brazen and involving. Mereilles and his cinematographer Cesar Charlone (they teamed on both “Gardener” and the great 2003 Brazilian film “City of God”) have it in them to be a perfect director-lensman complement — Bernardo Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro come first to mind. Charlone’s African landscapes are painted in multi-hued swirls, recalling a kind of post-impressionist style, only with a washed-out color base and the lighting often blown-out into a fade-to-white look. Multiple film stocks are used to great advantage in distinguishing different levels of reality. The movie’s dominant dusty orange/clay palette — particularly in the Kenyan and Sudanese locales — recalls the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in City of God.
The opening scenes are deliberately unclear, both in terms of what is going on and what it means — though it’s filled in and recoded later, in Mereilles’ usual tension-inducing way, through repeating the image in a different context, and with more knowledge on our part. Flocks of black birds and white birds appear as memento mori at several key points in the film. You also get such “City of God” devices as sudden bursts of unexpected violence (a scene in a Berlin hotel room) and tracks away from a doomed, fleeing person as seen from a faster mode of transportation that enables the saved character to move on.
All this is superb as itself, but that “fleeing but left behind” shot is the very tipoff to what’s wrong with “The Constant Gardener.” In “City of God,” that shot sets up the operatic death of Shaggy, one of the first act’s three principal characters. But “City of God” had an amazing script, by Braulio Mantovani (uninvolved in “The Constant Gardener”), that convincingly created both a whole world that seemed to teem off the edges of the frame, and a world where everything fit into everything else with ruthless logic. But here in “Gardener,” the person fleeing is unknown to us — a 5-year-old girl with no convincing Being to us other than a universal signifier of suffering. The film teems all right, but with ciphers, signifiers and stick figures. Heavy-handedness and one-dimensionality are acceptable for a single character, but not for every single daggum thing in the movie. “The Constant Gardener,” you see, is A Very Important Message Movie — Drug Companies Are Evil, I think — and everything gets subordinated to The Message until the film just becomes shrill propaganda. Is there worse damnation for a movie like this than being praised by the New York Times because it “may even trouble your conscience”?
To take just one example: “Gardener” stacks the moral deck so overwhelmingly in favor of Tessa — stealing from the ending of Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” in one moment, and a hundred devotional pictures of Our Lady of Perpetual Ecosocialism in nearly every other — that she ceases to be a character and becomes one more Universal Signifier. And like other Immaculately Conceived Heroines, she can have no flaws. Even when she tricks a man into letting her see a letter with a promise to give it back and have sex with him (a completely unbelievable deal from his end, by the way) — “Gardener” makes a point of redeeming her later through a Sara-like diary in which she says how much she hated having to lie and had no intention of cheating on her husband by following through on the deal. And her distance was just to protect Justin. And now he learns it all by reading her papers. Compare Fiennes’ reading of Sarah’s diary in “The End of the Affair” for a sense of how one-note “Constant Gardener” is.
The overall effect is like listening to Cicero deliver a Michael Moore speech. It’s not that “The Constant Gardener” traffics in ideas with which I disagree — it’s more that the film offers no space for a viewer to stand outside its crackpot conspiracy theories and anti-capitalist bedwetting. Even the love story is defined and shaped by leftist politics — its overall trajectory, after all, is the reshaping of a pro-Iraq-war functionary in the image of a hectoring anti-globalism activist. A story of political radicalization; the romantic equivalent of “growing in office”; an “uncaring” man turning into a “caring” woman (to use the movie’s terms of discussion) — the line “we can help one” is helpfully stated twice, but two characters, in two contexts. The reversal of the sexes actually helps hide how cliche “Gardener” is in romantic terms — it’s basically about the workaholic person who keeps his garden-tending spouse at a distance through devotion to the work that is consuming him until She Learns To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.
As it goes on, “Gardener” degenerates into a blizzard of the usual self-contradictory anti-capitalism adolescent whines. We get the caught-on-the-fly activist complaint that “we must buy your branded drugs at 5, 10, 20 times the price,” without anyone thinking to ask “20 times what” and wondering whether and why “the price” thus constructed as the “normal” base is actually that. We get a complaint that Western nations ship drugs to Africa to assuage our consciences (so we shouldn’t then?) and that they’re useless in an environment where there is no security or potable water (then why complain about their high cost or lack of access). The tests are for a drug to combat the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis, which has the potential to be a pandemic (one would think this would be a good thing), but all Le Carre’s script can see is “blockbuster profits” and the corruption of the testing process to determine side effects.
But most fatally for “Gardener,” the script by the increasingly eccentric Le Carre can see only James Bond-like villainy or conspiratorial corruption. As Goldfinger and Oddjob, Bill Nighy and Gerard McSorley are so clearly under orders to give such tiresomely one-note performances (McSorley is pure Snidely O’Whiplash) that if they weren’t being paid, you’d feel embarrassed for them. Governments are dismissed because “the drug companies seem to control them,” because there could never be any other reason liberals might not get what they know is right, right? But in the real world there are competing goods and value judgements, which Le Carre can’t see for his anger. The term “corporate murder” is blithely thrown about, but Le Carre tells us that there’ll never be any proof because they’re so shady and careful. Paging Karl Popper. Paging Karl Popper. And bring along your falsifiability test. He can’t even write a decent defense of the Iraq War at the start of the film. It is the ultimate form of self-righteousness: to refuse to acknowledge that people who disagree with you — about in this case, drug patent and testing — might have reasons, even ones you find ultimately unpersuasive. One scene of snarling villainy ends on the ultimate low blow, a pan from a well-manicured golf course to a teeming slum right immediately up against it. I think this was meant to ironically contrast the rich and the poor, but I’m really not sure. The dialog is as if Le Carre (and isn’t it relevant that I’m referring to “Le Carre” throughout, not his characters) had cut-and-pasted his back issues of The Nation: “They’re a drug company, c’mon. No drug company does something for nothing”; “the real axis of evil”; rich people talking about the sauces and cooking style of sole; and the misandrist rantings of Pete Postlethwaite at the end “the drug companies are the new arms dealers” (insert Victor eye-rolling here).
It’s not that any one thing in “Gardener” is particularly bad as such, but the incessant, one-note quality makes everything feel overdetermined and, finally, exhausting. In its own more-refined-looking way, “The Constant Gardener” is as one-dimensional as an Adam Sandler movie, and just as indulgent of its audience’s predigested worldviews — Hooray, peace activism! Boo, corporate profits!
But does it ever look good.
First published at The Fact Is
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