MOVIECUBE — AUGUST 2013 — ADAPTATION
If Justin Quayle had his way, he would spend his days in his garden—plucking the weeds out, applying pesticide, watering the plants. But Justin is a diplomat working for the British High Commission, and on one of his assignments he has to deliver a speech in place of his boss Bernard Pellegrin, and that’s where he meets Tessa. Passionate, outspoken and aggressive, Tessa is the complete opposite of Justin. They haven’t even known each other well when she asks him point blank to take her to Africa, where he is to be stationed. And perhaps helpless to her charm, beauty and persistence, Justin agrees.
A few minutes into the movie we come to understand that Tessa has died somewhere on the bank of Lake Turkana. She has been traveling with Arnold Bluhm, a doctor of African descent from Belgium, but he is nowhere to be found. Word on the street is, Tessa has been cheating on his husband with Arnold, and Sandy Woodrow—Justin’s colleague—sure adds fuel to the fire. “They spent the night at Lodwar,” he says to Justin when delivering the news of Tessa’s death, “They shared a room, Justin.”
Yet, through a smartly edited nonlinear narrative, we later find out that there is nothing that frivolous or domestic about Tessa’s murder. Prior to her death, along with Arnold Bluhm she has been engrossed in investigating about a new drug, Dypraxa, which apparently is being tested on Kenyans. The truth that Tessa succeeded in unearthing leads to her death and Justin, having nothing more to lose now that Tessa is gone, is determined to finish what she has started.
Based on a novel by John le Carré, the plot is actually derived from a real life case in Nigeria back in 1996, where its population is used as guinea pigs for a drug, leaving 200 children disabled and 11 dead. The international conspiracy done by giant pharmaceutical companies and corrupt governments seen in the film might seem like an exaggeration, but how can you say that it’s not true how Third World countries are often involuntarily exploited? In a country deep in poverty, corrupt officials are ever-present and human lives don’t really account for much. “Disposable drugs for disposable patients,” one of the characters says.
But perhaps the most distinct charm the movie offers is the love story that is delicately woven between the intricate politics. It initially seems like an unlikely love story, with Tessa’s character being one that is so manipulative, we are not even sure whether she is ever really in love with Justin. Rachel Weisz is radiant, and I guess anyone can willingly fall into the traps of such a beauty. We also have an unlikely hero in Justin, who is so delicate, almost timid, calm and utterly self-effacing. When Sandy comes to inform him about his wife’s death, he tries his best to give him a smile, “It’s good of you to tell me, Sandy. Can’t have been easy.” Ralph Fiennes is better known for his evil roles, that one in Schindler’s List is particularly hard to erase from memories. But if anyone has a doubt about his capacity as an actor, this film will definitely prove his weight as one of the best ones out there.
At first, it might look like the love story of these two characters will move into the background, overwhelmed by the politics, the main case. But to think that the politics is the drive of the story can be faulty, for if it’s not for Justin’s love for Tessa, will he have pursued the truth? Will he have put his life on the line to uncover the dirty secrets the governments and big companies are playing? The film succeeds in putting both the romance and the thrill in front, complimenting each other as we discover not only what happens behind Tessa’s murder, but also Tessa herself, the feelings and thoughts that she has never really shared with Justin, and how Justin gradually begins to understand her more.
Director Fernando Meirelles is a Brazilian native and his film before this was City of God (2002), an outstanding piece of work depicting the crimes happening in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. He seems to be in element here, with frequent collaborator Cinematographer César Charlone they create wonderful shots, be it the large African savannah or the cluttered slums of Kibera, and the red, earthy colors of Africa are exchanged with grey, dark colors when the scenes change to Europe.
There’s something very elegant about The Constant Gardener. There’s one particular scene where a gunshot should be heard, but it isn’t. Nor is it shown. Instead, we see a flock of birds take flight. This smart, elegant film is definitely one of the best yet underrated films that I’ve seen.