by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith / October 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper
A FILM REVIEW OF: “The Constant Gardener,” a U.S./U.K. independent film directed by Fernando Mierelles; screenplay, Jeffrey Caine. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weiz, and Danny Houston
Fernando Mierelles, who directed “City of God,” has a new film, “The Constant Gardener,” based on John Le Carre’s 2001 mystery novel of the same name. Like the book, the film takes place against the background of neo-colonial Africa, and focuses on the connivance of
the the Kenyan government with the British Foreign Office in covering up clinical trials of an unproven TB drug, DyPraxa.
The trials are perpetrated on an unsuspecting, impoverished African populace in Nairobi, by the capitalist multinational pharmaceutical giant, ThreeBees. Side effects of the drug sometimes include a slow and painful death through organ failure.
This suspenseful, intelligent, eye-opening, multi-layered film requires close attention. It is
over two hours long, yet is mostly rapid-fire, elicited by the use of hand-held cameras and jerky visual and audio quick-cuts.
As in a documentary, Mierelles captures Kenya’s color and flavor (cinematographer, Cesar Charlone) and its music (Alberto Igesias), and illustrates the social contrasts between Kenyans and Britons. On one side of the road are spacious green lawns and stately homes;
on the other, slapped-together houses with corrugated iron roofs, crowded together on dusty, red earth, with barely enough room to pass between.
“The Constant Gardener” begins at a law school lecture hall in London, with confirmed bachelor and British diplomat Justin Quayle (a perfectly cast bland, kind-eyed, and weak-chinned Ralph Fiennes), substituting for the scheduled lecturer.
Screenwriter Jeffrey Caine updated the novel by having a student, Tessa (played with fiery determination by Rachel Weiz), question Quayle about Britain’s role in Bush’s Iraq war. Quayle is taken by her, and they eventually marry and go off to Kenya, where Justin has
been posted by the British High Commission. The film then fast-forwards to Tessa’s murder.
Following Le Carre’s novel, screenwriter Caine uses the conceit of investigation to flash back to Justin and Tessa’s lives before her murder.
Quayle, Sandy Woodrow—also of the FO (played by an outstanding Danny Houston)—and others who had known her are interrogated regarding her murder. From this point on, the film becomes both a murder mystery and a spy intrigue vehicle in the breaking down of the
mechanism behind ThreeBees operations.
ThreeBees is banking on a future pandemic of drug-resistant TB, calling it “The White Plague.” It lobbies the U.S. and European governments for billions in funding —as well as from the UN, WHO, and other alphabet organizations—to bribe African officials into agreeing to the trials, knowing full well that the drug can kill, and of course, to line their own pockets.
In a busy marketplace, Black women in white smocks bearing the ThreeBees logo on the pocket distribute drugs: one drug costs little, the other is free. Kids are rewarded with a plastic toy. People sign forms with IC (Informed Consent) printed on them, without an
explanation, effectively giving the company, if the drug doesn’t work, the license to kill.
The slow, mysterious death of a young Black woman in an African hospital is the catalyst that further motivates and radicalizes Tessa. She and Dr. Arnold Bluhm, a Black man from Belgium (Hubert Kounde), begin building the case against ThreeBees (whose cartoonish
logo of three happy, busy bees, appears everywhere), networking with other activists in Germany and Sweden for information.
At first, Quayle stays clear of Tessa’s activities; preferring to be left alone to pursue his FO duties, working with Woodrow to spin and smooth sticky issues between the British and Kenyan heads of state and pursuing his hobby of gardening in his spare time. He lets her embarrass herself at posh, diplomatic parties where she confronts VIPs about their shameful
activities. But at one point, he is asked by his superiors to “rein her in.”
Tessa compromises herself with Woodrow, thinking he can help her put a stop to ThreeBees operations. Her idealism blinds her to the fact that government bureaucrats like him, who are in a position to do something, rarely act.
Quayle refuses to listen to the gossip about Tessa and Dr. Bluhm. Yet, once his wife is murdered and he begins to investigate her activities and to slowly gain a better understanding of what motivated her, he is fired up not only to validate his wife’s work but to finger the people behind ThreeBees, find out who ordered Tessa killed, and damn the consequences. As Le Carre put it, “her mission had become his.”
As the Foreign Office, British Intelligence, and Kenyan officials become aware of Quayle’s efforts, the suspense builds into spy vs. spy mode as Quayle travels to London, Germany, and back to Kenya barely one step ahead of his enemies.