The Constant Gardener
CERT 15, 128 MINS How rare it is that a good book is turned into a good film. I confess that unusually, if I have enjoyed a book, I arrive at its film re-incarnation with a sort of possessive hostility. Hermione Granger isn’t that pretty! Lady Catherine de Bourg should be more vulgar! Oliver looks too much like me! That kind of thing. The Constant Gardener, Jeffrey Caine’s adaptation of the best-selling John le Carré novel, is a happy exception: here, a good book has become an excellent film.
Perhaps the circumstances were helped in my case by a very short interval between reading the book and seeing the film (as a diligent Catholic Herald reviewer, I read it in the days leading up to the screening). Perhaps it helped that my paperback had on its cover the poster of the forthcoming film, such that for me, Justin Quayle could only ever be Ralph Fiennes, and his unruly wife had always been Rachel Weisz. Perhaps, even, John le Carré had a movie in mind as he wrote – hence the knowing nod in chapter nine as Justin contemplates “the disgusting notion of a film about Tessa’s death”.
Ah, but I am being unfair. The fact is that this film adaptation is well-written, well-directed, well-acted and well-shot. Dull old-Etonian diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) makes one rebellious move, rather late in his upright, quiet life, when he marries a beautiful lawyer nearly half his age. Tessa (Rachel Weisz) is passionate and impossibly sincere, and she is drawn to his calm just as he is drawn to her chaos. Off they go together to his latest posting, Nairobi, but where his job is to observe the endemic corruption and file reports that sit unread in a Whitehall archive, she tackles them straight on. The story begins with the news that Tessa has been murdered in the Kenyan outback, and Justin sets out to uncover a conspiracy that goes to the sick heart of the institutions he has respected his whole life.
Director Fernando Meirelles was made famous by City of God, which brought a shaky, documentary-style realism to family life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. His is a powerful technique, although applied to the muted drama of John le Carré it takes a bit of getting used to. It almost seems too intimate, not filmy enough – she with no make-up, he pausing and hesitating, camera hand-held – it is almost like the dress rehearsal, or “the making of...”
But once you get used to it, you stop finding the intimacy embarrassing and it becomes a revelation. Tessa may be a teensy bit irritating, and Justin may be a bit wet, but they are alive and totally convincing. What is more, their love affair is made more compelling not less by absence of big-screen grandeur. Ralph Fiennes is the acting equivalent of a Volvo; you trust him to be reliable, even on such close, unprepared inspection. There are well-cast and good performances by Danny Huston, as Justin’s hypocritical boss, and Bill Nighy, as corrupt diplomat Sir Bernard Pellegrin. It is all very English and muted, which, in the hands of a Brazilian director from Sao Paulo, becomes very interesting.
Had I been reviewing the book I would have said that there is nothing new in le Carré’s tight, laconic style, nor anything new in his involved, suspenseful plot; what is new is the sense of practical outrage, and it is captured by Fernando Meirelles’ forensic eye. The villain of this piece is not so much individuals, nor even the pharmaceutical industry (although it comes under some well-deserved fire) but that most wicked and unpunishable of villains: “the system”. I left the screening ever so slightly troubled by the thought that the world has not yet got it right, and that within the myriad actions that make up a government or a multinational company there might be crimes being committed every day, bigger and more wicked than any one individual could ever be punished for. Me, philosophising? In just two hours? It must be good.