In the last five years, Hollywood’s reinvented the superhero
movie by seducing indie directors with large budgets. Christopher
Nolan went from overrated chronology-shuffling (Memento)
to decent superhero franchise reinvigoration (Batman Begins),
while Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi
made the X-Men and Spiderman franchises (respectively)
their own. Every now and then a
critic cries foul at the alleged squandering of talent, but
far better for overqualified figures to take on potentially rote
blockbusters than, say, handing them off to Tim
(Taxi) Story or Rob (Reign
Of Fire) Bowman: that path can only lead to
Fantastic Four or Elektra. Siphoning off over-praised
indie talents and forcing them to give heart to meat-and-potatoes
comic-book mythology is a win-win for everybody.
Far more concern should be directed to the middlebrow co-opting
of promising talents, and The Constant Gardener is a prime
offender. You can see why a canny producer would take Fernando
Meirelles and marry him to this material. City Of God
was a story of slum life, perfectly at home in the bustling energy
of corruption and poverty, and The Constant Gardener is,
at heart, a story of the exploitation of Kenya’s poorest.
More colorful shantytowns for Meirelles, and at this he excels.
There are enough potbellied, malnourished little kids and colorfully
dressed Kenyans to sate anyone’s inner poverty tourist. But
there’s a whole lot of other material attached to this movie,
and it swamps him.
Like the once-lambasted, now-irrelevant films of Merchant-Ivory,
Gardener strives for the illusion of depth and “adult
filmmaking” without earning it. It’s a movie for people
who want to congratulate themselves for watching something other
than blockbusters but still want everything spelled out, starting
with that labored titular metaphor: Will our hero (Fiennes)
quietly tend to the surface plants and wipe out any trouble with
the pesticide of ignorance, or will he dig deeper to root causes?
Are the seeds of goodness and compassion lying latent within him?
There’s a goddamn garden or plant around seemingly every other
shot, lest anyone Not Get It.
When tending to matters political, however, Gardener
is far more muddled, and not in a good way. First, Fiennes and Rachel
Weisz meet semi-cute. He delivers a lecture to a group
of students, and she stands up and unleashes an angry, anti-Iraq-war
diatribe indicting British culpability in a sordid, oil-greedy mess.
Then they go back to her place and have sex. If not for the fact
that the source material for the film is a John Le Carré
novel, you could be forgiven for thinking that the political will
be subservient to the personal for the rest of the film (especially
because the sex scene is terrific: instead of the usual fake moaning
and writhing, we get lots of giggling at the awkward removal of
every item of clothing). But Gardener is off and running
soon enough, and it’s hard to tell what it’s up to.
It sticks to the outline of the novel—a diatribe about the
evils of unregulated pharmaceutical companies testing and pushing
drugs by any unethical means necessary, instances of which are well-documented—but
reduces everything to uncomplicated Good v. Bad. And what to do
when one character describes the companies involved as an “axis
of evil”—mark it off as an unlikely coincidence, or
assume that the film has a larger anger about governmental culpability
in the unethical practices of private companies, and the whole damn
affair is really about the war in Iraq and the abuses of power?
Gardener’s politics are absolutely inscrutable—beyond
the fact that Fiennes develops a conscience and turns Good, while
he is on the run from men who are very Bad because they killed his
wife and tortured and murdered a doctor who tried to expose their
malfeasance, etc. There are no real issues here, just the pretense:
It’s really just White Hat vs. Black Hat, again.
Hardly more helpful are the dated, stiff mannerisms of the Brits
involved. There’s a character named Sandy (Huston)
whose first words are “Look, old chap” and a very stiff-upper-lip
Fiennes who responds to being told of the death of his wife with,
“It’s good of you to tell me, Sandy. Can’t have
been easy.” Very pukka sahib… and, in this day and age,
slightly implausible. Maybe the diction of colonial Britain lives
on in the UK’s latter-day ambassadors, but it all seems slightly
ridiculous and stilted. Not to mention that the film’s vision
of corporate greed—centered around not just bribery but barely
concealed murders and intimidation—seems less like the fictionalized
journalism Le Carré specialized in during the Cold War and
more like (as one character describes a trouble-making report in
the film) “a lot of inspired guesswork.” Except possibly
not completely inspired; it’s quite well known that pharmaceutical
companies frequently collude to keep prices for expensive drugs
up as long as they can, doing everything possible to keep them from
turning into cheaper generics, and that corruption and well-placed
donations go a long way to making that happen. What’s with
all the murders?
Despite the film’s general muddle, Gardener is
respectable and watchable more often than not, thanks in large part
to the well-chosen cast. Fiennes repeats his last-civilized-Britisher-on-Earth
schtick to good effect, Bill Nighy is the respectable
face of upper-class villainy, and the underrated Danny Huston makes
for a complex and tortured semi-villain. Better yet is a strong
woman’s part that doesn’t orbit around anyone else:
As Fiennes’ politically active wife, Weisz is frequently obnoxious,
strident, and monomaniacal in the pursuit of the truth. It’s
a fearsome and convincing enactment of liberal political conviction,
and it gives the movie’s first half some much-needed energy.
Still, when all is said and done, The Constant Gardener
is too polite and well-spoken to really amount to much of anything,
but it’s so delicate that middlebrow audiences will probably
be suckers for it. It’s movies like this—not Batman
Begins—that pose a real threat to the careers of promising