International political intrigue and corporate conspiracies intertwine in a provocative new dramatic film adapted from a novel by English author John le Carre. Alan Silverman has a look at The Constant Gardener.
Justin Quayle, played by Ralph Fiennes, is a meek career diplomat whose only joys in life are his vivacious wife, Tessa, and the small patches of land that he meticulously crafts into gardens wherever he is stationed. Reassigned to the British High Commission in Kenya, he quietly sets about his day-to-day chores, but Tessa, played by Rachel Weisz discovers her own passion for the people and culture that are new to her.
Traveling to remote villages with a local doctor, she learns a terrible secret: an international pharmaceutical company is illegally testing its drugs on the unsuspecting villagers. It is knowledge that costs Tessa her life and the grief sends Justin on a desperate journey to uncover the conspiracy.
Ralph Fiennes says he never saw Justin Quayle as ordinary; and the two-time Oscar nominee says he doesn't believe the character ever expected to be a 'hero.'
"I loved his journey from being quiet, gentle, not particularly assertive and passive in a way; he's the sort of Englishman who won't interfere with his wife's work out of respect for her privacy and independence," explains Fiennes. "I like those qualities in him. Some people might see them as weak, but I don't. I think they have to do with decency and a certain sort of code of behaving and respecting someone else's space; but I like the way he's forced or provoked into having to ask certain questions which shifts something inside him. At the end of the film, I don't think he's a different person altogether; I think he's found a sort of inner muscle. He's a quiet hero.
Rachel Weisz says it was important that Tessa not appear to be a saint. Author le Carre wrote that he based her on a real person (human rights and refugee activist Yvette Pierpaoli); Weisz describes the film character as flawed, but extraordinarily driven to make a difference.
"I think most people see injustices in the world and they think 'oh, what can I do? It's too big. It's too complex and you'd just be a drop in the ocean.' I think the lesson I learned from her is that lots of drops make up an ocean and if people would stand up and say what they believed in, maybe we could make a difference," she says. " The other lesson that she has is that to help just one person is better than nothing. Just do something ... and mostly we do nothing, myself included. We're all more like Justin. We're good people and we do our life day by day, but we don't really want to make trouble. She's willing to make trouble."
The Constant Gardener is the first English language film for Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, who finds a special significance in the enigmatic title.
"This guy lives in his cocoon. He does the right thing every day and he's the right guy. He lives by a code, but he lives in this little garden - his own cocoon," the director explains. " He's in Africa, but he really doesn't touch Africa. He doesn't see Africa. Then, because of Tessa, he finally understands the place. I think this title is a hard one, especially for the U.S.; but in Europe it makes sense because the book was a best-seller in the U.K., Germany, Italy and France as well."
Fiennes believes the title gave him the key to understanding his character.
"I think it's the idea of nurture and care, constant, long-term care. Through all the seasons, the gardener is present: tending, adjusting, shaping, pruning, cutting back, planting. They garden. And the garden is a famous metaphor for life and work and expression of a person. I love the fact that what makes him the constant husband is the fact that he's a constant gardener," he says.
The Constant Gardener was shot on location in Kenya; the international cast includes American Danny Huston as Justin's diplomatic boss and Benin-born French actor Hubert Kounde plays Dr. Arnold Bluhm, with whom Tessa explores and uncovers the illegal medical testing.