Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Constant Gardener

Finally! After such a long wait, this movie has finally made it to our shores (I have been lamenting the same fate of other acclaimed movies recently). Directed by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (who did City of God), The Constant Gardener finds itself sandwiched between two others movies released here in the same period, sharing with North Country an aspect about whistle-blowing, and with Syrianna on the corruption of conglomerates.

While Syrianna takes on oil corporations, Gardener tells a tale of clandestine governments, and the morality issues faced by pharmaceutical companies. Adapted from the novel by John le Carré, Gardener explores and suggests what-if scenarios (I say "what-if" as I humbly ask if what was suggested by the film could have been inspired by some form of real happenings), of having human guinea pigs in the testing of new medicine. In contention here is a new drug for the treatment of tuberculosis, though HIV was also briefly sharing the spotlight in the plight of the African nations. The stark question posed, which makes you wonder, is whether it is right to have dying Africans, or those who are already terminally ill, test new medicine, and presenting to them Hobson's choice.

And Kenya was the choice location in the movie, with having both the hustle and bustle of the cities, and the lush desert plains both beautifully captured on film. While you feel the chaos in the cities and rural squatters in rusty brown hues, you'll also feel the peacefulness and emptiness of vast lands. You'll contrast the corruption of officials of the Haves in their cocktail parties, and the simple, poor lives of the Have Nots.

Ralph Fiennes puts up an excellent performance as Justin Quayle, a British diplomat in Her Majesty's Service. It's indeed a surprise exclusion in the Academy for his portrayal of an easy going man with green fingers (hence The Gardener). His mantra is to mind his own business and not get too involved with the locals, but as the movie evolves, we will see a change in this stand. However it calls to mind certain issues that again will set you thinking - if you want to help, how much and how far will you go? And why a certain group, and not others in similar situations? Resources will be your constraint, but what is the criteria in which you will base your decisions on? Now that you're made aware, will you still continue to turn the blind eye?

His spouse Tessa Quayle is played by Rachel Weisz, whom I'm not sure why her performance, while solid, is nothing to warrant a shout for an Academy nomination. Nonetheless, she's the centre of the entire scheme of things, and her story gets mainly told in flashbacks. A whistle-blower definitely ruffles feathers, and you know you're in a fix when you ruffle the feathers of the wrong bird. Extremely blunt and determined (and also giving the filmmakers an opportunity to air their opinion on the Iraqi war), she discovers that there's more than meets the eye in the way medicine is dispensed to the African poor, and sets off on a crusade in which the means could justify the ends.

But we slowly learn and unravel the mystery of what happened, and who's involved, as the Gardener takes us on his trail of investigation, digging through clues, and weeding out red herrings, piecing together the entire event. It is the film editing here which gets the thumbs up. Just as you accept something at face value, there is enough suggestion again to make you think otherwise.

In case you're wondering if the meandering narrative or themes will put you off, you might be glad to know that central throughout the movie is the love between the couple. How so much unsaid, and circumstances not explain could lead to suspicion, or deliberately done so to protect the other. Although the leads spend considerable time apart, we could feel, especially from Justin, the strong emotional attachment he has for Tessa, right up until the ending, which is just about right in the way it should end.

It's a wonderful film, one in which you'd have to stay attentive to truly appreciate. It poses questions but doesn't get preachy, although they do prod at your conscience. Given it's insane release schedule together with Walk the Line, Jarhead, Syrianna, and with North Country and Match Point already screening, we're indeed spoilt for choice which to watch first. I'd say watch them all!

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