The Constant Gardener
directed by Fernando Meirelles
129 minutes (R rating)
Commentary by Kevin Miller
In terms of decoding what is at first glance a rather unusual title, one of the most poignant scenes in this film is a brief homemade video during which Tessa films her sleeping husband Justin—a British diplomat stationed in Kenya—while joking about how he is probably dreaming of a “world without weeds.” No doubt, she isn’t far from the truth, seeing as Justin devotes most of his spare time to caring for his immaculate garden. But can his dream ever become reality? And is his love of horticulture—and his need to eradicate weeds—a healthy way of coping with life? Or does it represent something else, a retreat from life perhaps, a denial of the weed-infested reality that is all around him? Tessa’s tone definitely implies the latter.
And Tessa should know. In contrast to Justin’s reticence, she has taken it upon herself to root out some of the weeds of injustice that Justin and his cohorts at Britain’s High Commission in Kenya have chosen to ignore—a fact that irritates the High Commission to no end. When Tessa catches wind of a plot by a multinational drug company to use Kenyans as Guinea pigs for a new tuberculosis drug in exchange for free medication, she and a Kenyan doctor named Arnold attempt to blow the whistle. Not long afterwards, Tessa and Arnold are found murdered in a remote region of northern Kenya. Stunned by his wife’s death, Justin is finally drawn out of the safety of his garden and into the jungle of the real world as he attempts to discover who killed Tessa and why, and the true nature of her relationship with Arnold.
During his journey, Justin unearths a twisted trail of corruption and greed. But he uncovers far more than mere facts. He also discovers a love he never knew he had, a love that frees him to finally become the person he has always longed to be. Despite Justin’s success at solving the mystery of Tessa’s death, a pall of tragedy continues to hang over his life, because even though he has found the truth, it still seems like too little, too late. Then again, perhaps a bit of truth is better than no truth at all.
In setting such a personal story against a backdrop of institutional corruption, The Constant Gardener contains several layers of depth in what otherwise could have been a one-dimensional diatribe against the evils purportedly carried out by multinational pharmaceutical companies. Its focus is on the individual roots of larger issues within the lives of particular characters, illustrating that none of us can absolve ourselves of guilt when it comes to such meta-crimes.
Though we may not be willing participants, could we be tacitly ignoring unacceptable situations—even profiting from them—as the British were, or perhaps hiding out in our own climate-controlled version of Justin’s garden and denying their existence? Or can we identify with Tessa, actively seeking the truth knowing full well that the quest for justice could lead to the sacrifice of all we hold dear? Do we in fact value the lives of our neighbors as highly as our own?
This film suggests that as long as we cling to self-interest and ignore or deny crimes around us, not only will injustice persist; it will hamper us from achieving the fullness of humanity for which we long, both as individuals and as a society. Only when we are brave enough to accept that the world is full of weeds and then set about pulling them out will we ever become the people we were created to be.
@ 2005 Kevin Miller.