Film review by B. Rodna Zian.
The film The Constant Gardener depicts the unethical behavior of multinational drug corporations in Africa. The leading actors are Rachel Weisz (Tessa Quayle) and Ralph Fiennes (Justin Quayle). Tessa Quayle is murdered because she wanted to bring the drug companies to justice. The movie charts Justin's metamorphosis from a complicit bureaucrat into a person who wants to expose the truth. The change in his character is seen through the different types of shots, camera angles, lighting and juxtaposition of scenes that are used to film him.
The movie is a combination of two genres. It is both an action adventure (with a quest plot) and a melodrama. Justin's quest is for the truths that lead to the death of his wife. He does not want to rest until he finds Tessa's killers and why they killed her. Justin only starts to know his wife through his attempt to retrace her steps. The film is melodramatic, realistic and the characters are meant to be psychologically interesting. Justin's character in particular is intriguing. The audience is drawn in by his loss and the danger he puts himself in while trying to uncover the truth. This search provides the quest plot-design: he searches to regain his and Tessa's soul and relationship too.
Justin is depicted as the reluctant hero in the movie. Justin's character at the beginning of the movie is starkly different from his wife's. He is quiet, while she is outspoken. He feels the need to retreat from his life by gardening, but Tessa is always found interacting with people. Tessa is all action while he is sedate. Tessa's death shocks Justin out of his retreat and complacency. In taking on her causes he takes on some of her character traits. He interacts with people he would never have otherwise, all in the effort to know what his wife did. He leaves the refuge of his garden and exposes himself to the same dangers.
In the movie, Tessa is primarily seen in the flashbacks that Justin has of her. The audience sees her through Justin's eyes. This sometimes makes her the focus of the particular shot when Justin is with her. The lighting in the movie shows how he is in her shadow. In the opening shots of the movie Tessa says goodbye to Justin at the airstrip. We see Tessa's profile while Justin is an obscure figure. She is dominant and he is unidentifiable. Before her death, Justin seems uncomfortable as the center of attention. At the lecture he gives, he seems uncomfortable during his speech. The room is dim, but when Tessa starts to question him the curtains start to get drawn and light floods the room. Tessa is associated with the light. She is not intimidated by him and wants him to see her point of vies. The room empties leaving them alone and the audience is drawn in by the stark contrast between them.
The ways in which Tessa and Justin are filmed differ before and after her death. Neither is depicted as larger or smaller than the other, but Tessa's character is given more attention during shared shots. In these shots, we see Tessa from the waist or face up, while he is mostly standing. When she asks Justin to take her with him to Africa as his wife, almost the whole shot is of her face. The camera films her more closely than Justin. Justin tends to be put in a context; he is around his plants or at an office while the camera focuses on Tessa's face. Tessa is seen in the slums of Kenya. She wanders around the shantytowns. Justin is seen alone indoors. His offices are always bare, save for his plants. The walls are neutral while Tessa is seen surrounded by color and people. These differences disappear after her death. Justin becomes the focus of the shots. He is no longer filmed at a distance, instead the camera starts to film him in the same way it filmed Tessa. Justin's appearance changes as his character changes. At the start he is always formally dressed and Tessa's clothing is always relaxed. As the movie progresses, he becomes more disheveled.
When Justin watches videos of Tessa the camera loses focus, it's as if the camera is tearing up just like he does. Then the scenes of Justin's first encounters with Tessa are repeated when he returns to her home. We see how much pain Justin is in. All he has left of her is her work and his memories of her. He is in Tessa's garden and he makes a half-hearted attempt to put it in order. He tried to take refuge in the garden but it is no longer possible for him to hide. He has to uncover what she found out because it is all he has left of her. The audience sees him travel through Africa and Europe trying to uncover the truth.
At the same time Justin's discoveries of the dealings of KDH and the Three Bees Corporation put him in extreme danger. Thus the action of the film becomes very fast paced while Justin's mental condition starts to deteriorate. His appearance can also be seen as unkempt as he starts to hallucinate. There is a sense of suspense in the movie as the camera shots of Justin show how paranoid he feels and rightly so. He is attacked in his hotel room and thinks he sees Tessa with him.
He is told that his life is in danger if he stays in Africa but he decides to die. After he finds out the truth of her death, his quest is over and he wishes to die because his death would bring him as close to Tessa as possible. He chooses to let Tessa's killers find him. In the scenes where he waits for his killers the shots of him are wider than they have ever been. The audience sees how he is alone and seems to have nothing to live for. We can see the killers on the way to find him and how indifferent Justin is to his death. He wants to die to rejoin her. He hallucinates that his wife is with him and her name is the last word uttered in the movie.
In the film at his memorial service Tessa's cousin Ham exposes the truths that the Quayle's uncovered. The audience is left with the troubling thought that all the deaths in the movie were for nothing. The drug companies still continue their trials in Africa and it is unclear whether Pellegrin will really be held accountable for his part in their murders. Thus the action and melodrama are brought together in an explicit ethical political message. The movie tries to convey how multinational drug companies are killing the people of Africa for the sake of the wealth of the West. People should be more aware of the actions of the drug companies and not be complicit because it affects all of us
The movie is visually stunning and the performance's by all the actors is excellent. Justin was complicit until it was too late, resulting in both his death and Tessa's. His quest is complete at the tragic close. The filmic techniques made all this vivid and alive to the audience.