In our age of perpetual information, where nothing remains a secret for very long -- even if nothing changes when it comes to light -- it's virtually impossible to write a political thriller that can shock us more than the evening news or the Internet's watchdog blogs and dot-orgs. And yet, the British spy novelist John Le Carré tries in The Constant Gardener, his story about drug companies and governments whose corruption and collusion kills Africans who turn to the developed world for help.
Directed by Fernando Meirelles (City of God), who is Brazilian, The Constant Gardener makes an often-compelling film, especially because it's so handsomely acted by its two gifted leads. But it runs out of story, theme and character about 30 minutes before it ends -- and even if it hadn't, a steely thriller is hardly a forum for effecting outrage, regardless how serious its makers or its making.
Le Carré's compelling anti-hero, portrayed by Ralph Fiennes, is career diplomat Justin Quayle, an aid-effectiveness officer with the British High Commission who's every bit his name: He's an honest man, and therefore prey for the people around him who aren't. We meet him in Kenya as he says goodbye to his radiant young wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz). Moments later, Quayle gets a visit from Sandy (Danny Huston), his trusted friend and colleague, who tells him that Tessa has been murdered.
We then flash back to see how the couple met when Quayle delivered a lecture and Tessa, a brash human-rights activist of maybe 22 years old, stood up to challenge his belief that governments can do social good. (Le Carré published his novel in 2000, but Jeffrey Caine's screenplay allows Tessa a brief jab at the role of their "pathetic country" in the current Iraq war.) When the room clears, Tessa apologizes to Quayle for her rudeness. Quayle, who is a sincere British gentleman, honors her for her passion.
So they make love that afternoon, and soon Tessa accompanies Quayle to Africa, where he administers healthcare programs, especially for AIDS. But Tessa -- suspicious of the system, and desperate to help every individual she meets -- secretly sets out to prove that a drug company, with the backing of the government, is exploiting sick Africans by testing a faulty TB vaccine on them. That's what gets her killed, and it sets Quayle off on some intrigue to see just how high the execution order went.
Le Carré (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) has written in this milieu for more than 40 years, and his story drips with authoritative cynicism. His Quayle is a fascinating character, so earnest in his British manner that when Sandy informs him of his wife's death, Quayle consoles his messenger. When a vile Kenyan police officer tells Quayle that he's a bad liar for a diplomat, Quayle replies coolly, "Well, I haven't risen very high."
This sort of incisive dialogue spills over into Meirelles' crisp direction, which forces you to pay attention, although perhaps in part because some of the plot clearly gets rushed toward the end, when politics, disease and revenge motifs begin to make some odd bedfellows.
At its best, The Constant Gardener is a satisfying study of how Quayle goes from being a good man to a great one, and its strikingly authentic scenes of African suffering remind us of how the privileged West does so little to help people who, we're told several times, are going to die anyway. As one government officials puts it: "We're not killing people who wouldn't be dead otherwise." There are no happy endings here, although there is a fairly Romantic one, albeit in a modern vein.