Cinema Signal:

Everything Is Under Control:
Conspiracies, Cults, and Cover-ups
by Robert A. Wison

. "The Constant Gardener"

Speaking for myself, there's always been something both attractive and off-putting about a John le Carre' novel. The world of spies and international intrigue that he knows so intimately is rich and compelling soil for drama, but his style of intricate detail and dense description can be a test of concentration, if not comprehension. If this film serves as a model, however, translation to film should do wonders to broaden his appeal.

That the director of "City of God," Fernando Meirelles, added the stamp of his style and a vision devoid of "middle class prejudice" to le Carre's tale of love amid political expediency and corporate deception adds immediacy and a vital connection to the layers of mystery involved. A finely-tuned cast adds the final touch of exceptional character portrayal.

At the center is Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz) who isn't a mere living room activist. The sway of big business over the unfortunate is the kind of issue she takes as obligation to correct, and the case of a drug that's wreaking havoc on the children of Kenya fills her with the passion to uncover a deeply masked conspiracy involving a major pharmaceutical company with international scope and an emerging product with potentially deadly side effects. A serious crime is being committed on the wholesale level and the coverup of this model of greed goes to the highest diplomatic channels in Britain.

Little does mid-level diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) know what he's in for when he takes over a lecture for his boss Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston), the man directly under British High Commission's Head of Chancery (Bill Nighy), and comes under ferociously opinionated challenges from a member of the audience--Tessa. Her inability to stop once she gets started well establishes the lady's lack of compromise on issues of injustice and she easily clears out the room. To her credit, she's mortified when she comes up for air and realizes how relentlessly she attacked the poor man on the podium. This polite lecturer, after withering under her invective, forgives it, takes her for coffee, and winds up in her bed. Love and a marriage of opposites follow.

Shortly after wedding vows, Tessa flies back to Kenya on what was to be a brief mission, and is murdered. Quayle, whose world is one of gentle and constant diplomacy, is shaken to his core and he feels an urgency like none he has felt before to understand the issues that could have led to the outrage. One of his first discoveries is that Tessa held her campaigns secret from him as a means of protection. His complicity in his own ignorance came from a natural reticence to do much probing and his tendency to not consider that her work might contain considerable risk. But, now, his need to understand it by tracing her activities all the way to Kenya and wherever else it might lead exposes him to the same dangers.

He uncovers Tessa's pending exposure of a major pharmaceutical conglomerate turning the poor of Kenya into experimental guinea pigs for their new drug that promises immense profits. But it's flawed, and rather than take it off the market when people start dying and facing a three year delay for redesign, the company engages in a conspiracy of deception and payoffs. The threads of culbability lead Justin all the way back to his own organization, the British Diplomatic Corps. He's astonished to find, there, an unsuspected level of deceit and betrayal.

Justin's deep penetration into his wife's life and work also raises possibilities of infidelity and, in his constant pursuit of the truth at any cost, Justin becomes a very different man--one who has taken on all the risks that killed his wife.

Le Carre' patterned the part of Tessa, this compassionate and unstoppable activist for social justice, on Yvette Pierpaoli, a representative for Refugees International whom he met in Phnom Penh and who was killed in a car crash in Albania at the age of 60. "Tessa's commitment to the poor of Africa, particularly its women, her contempt for protocol and her unswerving, often maddening determination to have her way stemmed quite consciously so far as I was concerned, from Yvette's example," le Carre' wrote in The Observer in 2001.

But the layering of such a personality into a compelling love story that turns a grieving husband into the vehicle of disclosure of a cynical coverup with all the intrigue of a spy thriller is pure art (Jeffrey Caine of "Rory O'Shea Was Here" wrote the screenplay). In the book, it may be noted, Tessa dies on page one, setting up the film's effective flashback structure.

Of a uniformly brilliant cast, Weisz is exceptional in using her own dedication to portray a woman who exists on a plane of living for a cause, and her energy of commitment is palpable; Fiennes turns in one of his best performances in the evolution of a man of guileless gentility to one of uncompromising backbone. Likewise, Huston is an exemplary fit as a man of unscrupulous subtlety in service of wealth and advantage even though he's an American actor of Italian descent and not British at all. Among the British, Bill Nighy is, as usual, another standout. Pete Postlethwaite's role as the remote Doctor Lorbeer raises the dramatic level and is fine tuned casting colorfully well done.

This is a film that feeds your anger at the misuse of power. At the same time, it engages you in a romance, and leaves you sorrowing over wasted lives. The formulation is brilliant in the literary sense; limited in the coommercial one and, for the intelligent reader, moviegoer, the concerned citizen, the aware observer, the letter-to-the editor writer, the lover of message-relevant material, le Carre' and Meireilles fans, "The Constant Gardener" is a must-see.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes as Tessa and Justin Quayle
In the pursuit of justice, separately and together

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