Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

The Constant Gardener Film Review

the constant gardenerThe blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I return for another round with this duo post series of ours. For the start of summer we’ll take on a fairly recent work of a famed British author. Well known to fans of the espionage genre, his name is David John Moore Cornwell. Born in 1931, he is likely the one of the most important writers of this type of fiction still living and contributing today, in fact. Don’t recognize the name, you say? Well, maybe his pen name will do the trick: John le Carré.

Once employed by British Intelligence (both MI5 and MI6), Mr. Cornwell used the nom de plume when he began writing novels. Once his third book, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963,) became an international best-seller, he left MI6 to become a full-time writer of fiction and non-fiction books, screenplays and short stories. As a novelist, he’s been undaunted in ascribing the actions and ills of the profession and his countrymen in the course of his works.

My colleague will examine one in particular, his 2001 novel later adapted as a 2005 film, which I will review. Rachel’s book review can be found here:

The Constant Gardener by John le Carré

A brief synopsis of the film: Justin Quayle is a fairly shy, low-rung British diplomat. One who seems more interested in his horticultural hobby than his posting to Kenya, upholding flag and honor for the realm. That he’s married to a beautiful and quite impassioned activist, Tessa, is well his most striking attribute, to those around him and even himself. His life of avoiding or making a fuss will be completely upended when he learns his wife has been found dead, gruesomely murdered, in a remote portion of the African veld. This meditative man will launch a quest for the truth with his own international investigation, but will uncover a conspiracy more dangerous than he could have ever imagined.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]

“Do you no good to go poking around under rocks, Justin. Some very nasty things live under rocks, especially in foreign gardens.”

While I remain a big fan of the stories written by this novelist, it has always been on the side of the film or television adaptations when it came to his tales of subterfuge. For the life of me, I cannot tell you the number of his novels I’ve started… That’s right, I have finished nary a one. Admittedly, that’s my failing. His prose and thoughtfully written plotting just don’t seem to work for this reader. Still, the narratives he cleverly crafts have always fascinated the viewer in me.

Especially this, a motion picture I idiotically neglected since its mid-decade release; until now.


The adaptation, skillfully done by the noted Brazilian film director, producer and screenwriter Fernando Ferreira Meirelles and writer Jeffrey Caine, was suggested by my colleague for this entry in our series. Remind me to listen to this woman more often. Much like her suggestion last year for 2010’s The Whistleblower, which, as here, also starred the talented Rachel Weisz, it enthralled. Made me think, too, and royally pissed me off no end. That would be a good thing.

The Constant Gardener accomplished another rare feat. Be a captivating, perhaps a bit cold-heartedly, political thriller while managing to tell a tragic love story passionately as it looked back beyond the grave. And if we’re speaking of romantic drama, along with being peeved, this naturally drew comparison to a film I’ve already railed on this year and in the past. The English Patient, the same movie the vaunted Academy awarded the 1996 Best Picture.

I say that because, along with its non-linear storytelling and acting nomination for Ralph Fiennes in ’96, who also stood out in this film even more, though was not nominated, Academy members pretty much ignored this Meirelles work, a decade later. Trust me, despite being similar, The Constant Gardener is a much better film. Although, Ms. Weisz deservedly won for supporting actress for the film so it wasn’t shutout, thankfully. They fawned over Anthony Minghella and the inane romance conjured up, but missed this almost entirely.

Makes me hate the 1996 film all the more.


Yeah, I’m making a fool of myself praising a movie I’ve just seen to no end. But this crew accomplished their goal of telling the le Carré story hauntingly well. As a cold-eyed political thriller, I believe it’s right up there with All The Presidents Men, The Killing Fields, and heck even the recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (another work of Cornwell’s redone for the big screen), as one of the best lensed in the genre. This made Steven Spielberg’s Munich, a film I liked and nominated the same year, look heavy-handed and levels below this work.

The author certainly knows how to concoct intrigue around an attractive, loving pair of characters (see 1990’s Russia House as an example), never as tragic as done here, however. In many ways, the film reminded me of another exemplary tale…not The English Patient, though it reeks a tad of it with Fiennes looking back at the dead woman he loved as he heads toward his own end. No, it would be Edge of Darkness, the 1985 British miniseries (more so than the decent 2010 redux for the big screen, which still paled next to the original).

The-Constant-Gardener-02A valid case could be made Justin Quayle and Edge of Darkness‘ Ronald Craven (the still very much missed late-Bob Peck) were one in the same. Haunted men picking up the pieces involving a headstrong, activist loved one (interchanging a wife for a daughter), and left to wonder what the hell they were up to that got them killed. Doubting their very nature and motive, but at heart worth all the love they could muster.

Coming around late to realize what they were up against (Big Pharma here, the Nuclear Energy industry of Thatcher’s Britain back then) was the villainy of corporate, systematic greed allowed to run roughshod over anyone for sake of the bottom-line. Political murder simply a means to an end, especially those trying to bring awareness of their illegal and/or immoral practices. Finally producing change for the protagonist’s way of thinking, and allowing them to fulfill what the dead had started. Ultimately paying for it, though.

“I only give the food to the women, Mr. Black. Women make the homes, men just make wars… and hooch. Adam was God’s first draft – He got it right with Eve. Tell that to your readers, Mr. Black.”

Love. At any cost.”, a tag line and a bravado undertaking, to say the least. A great mystery to unravel, and an unexpected romance tied together to make a thrill ride of a film. I’m still trying to think of why I didn’t see this that year — let’s just blame The English Patient, shall we? Besides the compelling storytelling, it’s a beautiful film to behold. The African landscape and people hauntingly shot by the cinematographer. DP César Chalone once again joined up with Meirelles to do stellar work, as was done for City of God three years earlier.


It’s no surprise what side these two were on by their photography. The use of vibrant color and arresting contrast, along with Alberto Iglesias‘ score, whenever the birthplace of humanity was on screen said it all. Especially, when distinguished against the cold, muted landscape of a post-Thatcher Britain Chalone and Meirelles placed here. It’s little wonder where the viewer’s sentiment landed, despite the harrowing poverty and death stalking about, or Big Pharma’s want to exploit it all via the corruption wielded.

Rachel WeiszLoaded with mainstays of British film, the aforementioned Fiennes, Weisz, Bill Nighy, Donald SumpterArchie Panjabi (who I hardly recognized without her The Good Wife boots and attitude), Hubert KoundéGerard McSorley, and the late-Pete Postlethwaite, it was quite a cast. Not to mention American Danny Huston proving a deft cad, once again, for the situation. Director Fernando Meirelles (he of the aforementioned and brilliant City of God, another I took ages to catch up to) marshaled a fine contingent for what was one of the best pictures in 2005, I’d say.

Hey, I at least admit my mistakes. How about you Academy?

Justin Quayle: “Be reasonable. There are millions of people, they all need help. It’s what the agencies are here for.”
Tessa Quayle: “Yeah, but these are three people that WE can help.”

Yes, I cannot measure how well the filmmakers’ translated the John le Carré novel to the motion picture screen as I’ve not read it. You’ll have to pore over Rachel’s review for that. I will say it was fine fiction brought to life that certainly rung of truth. The kind that only ekes out from time-to-time and quickly disavowed by corporate legal representation. Fernando Meirelles crafted The Constant Gardener as one superb thriller slash romantic drama. Breathtaking to look at, marvelously acted by all (especially by Fiennes, Weisz, Huston, and Nighy). Plus, it had a couple you actually cared about, and not one of them managed to get left in some fecking cave as a result!

Parallel Post Series

26 Responses to “The Constant Gardener Film Review”

  1. Cavershamragu

    Terrific review of a a strong adaptation of perhaps the best of Le Carre’s post-Cold war novels. And I agree, THE ENGLISH PATIENT by comparison is a real dog’s breakfast!


  2. Paula

    I absolutely loved THE CONSTANT GARDENER and I do agree, it’s a better, even more tragic, film than THE ENGLISH PATIENT (which I don’t hate, I just think it’s way overrated). I think the Academy possibly thought they were quite the same and possibly that is why Fiennes was ignored for the better performance?

    I agree with most of what you said and add only a couple things: 1) I read an interview with LeCarre when this came out and he said what’s in the book is a FRACTION of what Big Pharma really does; and 2) Danny Huston is like an Old Hollywood supporting actor…when called upon to deliver a loathsome cad, he comes through every time.

    PS: Don’t feel bad for not having seen this until now. I still haven’t seen CITY OF GOD 😉


    • le0pard13

      Yeah, that may have happened. Fiennes gave what I think was a superior performance in this film and should be been at least rewarded with a nomination. I read that quote, too. Scary stuff that should be eye-opening. So true about Danny Huston, too. Many thanks for the read and comment, Paula :-).


  3. ruth

    Hi Michael! GREAT review and though I quite like The English Patient too, I must agree that this is a better film. I like the spy quality of it but boy it packed such an emotional punch. Though brief, the relationship between Ralph and Rachel’s characters are very moving, when he found out what happened to her it was so heartbreaking. I like how she somehow ‘woke him up’ from his docile existence. Danny Huston is quite an underrated character actor IMO.


    • le0pard13

      Wonderful comment and point about Tessa’s character with regard to her husband, Ruth. I really did feel entirely pulled in with this story and characters. Beautifully expressed visually and thematically by the director and cast. I’m so glad I finally saw this one. Good to have you back, Ruth. Heartfelt thanks.


  4. Rachel

    Excellent review and I’m so glad you liked the film. I can honestly say I’m a bit shocked you’d never seen it before! You know I share your hate of TEP but I would never have connected these two films and so the one would not have put me off to other. Regardless, I’m a huge fan of Weisz and Fiennes (and the director) and so was in line on opening night for this one. Well, there was no line. Sadly, this film seems to have been slightly forgotten before it ever became past.

    (side note: I know I’ve said it before but since my hate is as great as yours I can never miss out on a chance to be mean to TEP. It’s put me to sleep three times. I’ve only attempted it three times because I love Fiennes and Scott Thomas, as well. Ugh, what was the academy thinking??? btw, the book isn’t as terrible.)

    This adaptation is excellent, fantastic, transcendent, superlative. I can’t heap enough hyperbolic language on that topic. It might be one of the best I’ve ever seen actually. Movie-wise there are a view huge plot connections you sort of have to take on faith that the book does much better (well, it’s a book after all:) but it never requires so much faith that you can’t go right along with it. Besides, those connections aren’t pulled out of a hat. They are true to the book, just quick in movie time.

    I like this film quite a bit. I find the narrative is absorbing (esp when compared to the book) and craft-wise it’s out of the park. Directing, cinematography, score, acting… just fantastic!

    I mentioned this over in a comment on my blog but I’m thinking those of us you can’t finish le Carre should form a club or something. 🙂 It appears there are more of us than one might first suppose.

    So glad we did this title! Thanks!


    • le0pard13

      I’m really quite guilty for missing this film when it came out. I did hear of it, but didn’t act. Again, I blame TEP ;-). I like how you describe it,

      This adaptation is excellent, fantastic, transcendent, superlative.

      Oh, yes. The I-can’t-finish-a-John le Carre Marching and Chowder Society. That’s us!

      Glad we did this title, Rachel. Kudos to you for suggesting it. Thanks.


  5. Christine McCann

    I was thrilled to see that you and Rachel did one of your duo posts on The Constant Gardner! I have watched this film at least 5 times all the way through and snippets here and there when channel surfing. It was just so well done on so many fronts. And it’s scarily plausible, if not probable, in some instances. I was so interested to find out if there had been an inspiration for this story and I found this article on his inspiration for Tessa. I am in awe of anyone who can go into such situations and stay the course when there’s so much to do and it can’t be done NOW. To realize it is no small thing to help just the three people when you want to help all. I was also tickled when the name Justin gives Lorbeer is Robert Black, my father’s name. I’ve not read any of Le Carré’s books and am looking forward to reading Rachel’s review of the book.


    • le0pard13

      That’s great to hear, Christine. I thought this would stand up to multiple screenings, and you’ve verified that. It’s a great film. And thanks for that link along with your wonderful comment! Wow.


  6. Novroz

    GReat review, Mike…always with incredible detail about the characters. I am thinking of finding the movie now. The movie sounds more interesting than the book (plus it has Ralph Fiennes in it). I couldn’t finish the book because it was too boring and made fall asleep every time I tried to read it.


    • le0pard13

      Hi, Novroz! Great to hear from you and I heartily recommend this title. Some of Fiennes best work, that’s for sure. Also, great to have a new member of our I-can’t-finish-a-John le Carre-novel Marching and Chowder Society ;-). Many thanks.


  7. Eva G. Larsen

    Asked if he will make another Brazilian film, Meirelles mentions the novel Devil to Pay in the Backlands (Grande Sertão: Veredas) a classic of Brazilian literature, often compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses and written by João Guimaraes Rosa which Meirelles has always dreamt of bringing to the big screen. But he also says that he’s afraid the novel is so great, that he doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to make the film. For now, his eyes are on his next project, Onassis, a biopic of Aristotle Onassis based on the controversial novel Nemesis, by British writer, Peter Evans which will, no doubt, bring him back to London.


    • le0pard13

      Great comment and info, Eva! It’s certainly piqued my interest for this filmmaker more now. I certainly look forward to whatever he has in store for his fans, old and new. Many thanks for the reading and offering your thoughts about Meirelles :-).



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