The task of bringing any of John le Carré’s work to the screen is extremely daunting and occasionally rewarding (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold). With such rich characterization, plots that twist and turn as truth morphs continuously into deceit, the chances of recreating the mood, tone and texture of the original is, necessarily, slim.
In The Constant Gardener, director Fernando Meirelles and screenwriter Jeffrey Caine have opted to let the tragic love story of Justin (Ralph Fiennes) and Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz) dominate the proceedings. The result is a film that has appeal to a wide audience but somewhat disappoints those who have savoured the original text.
Set largely in Kenya, the seamier side of raging epidemics (AIDS, famine) and simmering ones (notably the clinical trial of the fictional drug “Dypraxa,” a “miracle” treatment for TB but whose side effects include death) is the stunning backdrop for the doomed couple. Human rights activist Tessa (her “love at first fight” scene following Justin’s delivery of a dull lecture is marvellous; their subsequent romp in the hay a delight) and constant companion Dr. Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé) document the horrific tragedies, but rather than go public, they decide to go through the diplomatic channels of the British High Commission. Justin, a mid-rank employee there, is kept in the dark to protect him. But before you can say “insider conspiracy,” Tessa is raped and killed and the good doctor has disappeared.
The story unfolds with much beauty (César Charlone’s camera provides spectacular images whether up close in the bath or long shots of the flocks of birds fleeing the murders at Lake Turkana) and flashback style. Everything’s edited brilliantly by Claire Simpson.
It falls to Justin to finish his wife’s work, which is no easy task since he must take on the corporate pharmaceutical giants (Three Bees Inc., a wonderful metaphor and typical Le Carré detail that links so well to the amateur gardener forced to become a professional spy) and Her Majesty’s government in the person of Sir Bernard Pellegrin (Bill Nighy, lying with conviction and oozing appropriate disdain for those who seek the truth).
Yet this is where the film slips a few notches. The characters of the “enemy” (Danny Huston as work “colleague,” Sandy Woodrow; Gerard McSorley as the greedy knight, Sir Kenneth Curtiss) don’t get enough screen time to demand outrage and deserve extinction. Worse, the plight of the poor and dying Africans comes across only as sad, rather than devastating. Fiennes looks the part and stoically manages then collapses into his grief effectively, but the fire-in-the-belly that sears the pages of the book merely flickers on the screen. Similarly, apart from her opening outburst, Weisz’s portrayal shows determined interest instead of reckless obsession, shading the film with too much pastel when the primary hues that adorn the populous who are fed “disposable drugs for disposable patients” are needed.
Nonetheless, the original score by Alberto Iglesias (subtle clarinet, soaring cello, pulse-perfect drums and percussion for the travel sequences) is a constant pleasure which knowingly underpins the creativity and cultural richness of a people that has become the laboratory of the damned and plaything of the rich and powerful. JWR