The Constant Gardener

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, September 26, 2005


The rip-snorting Brazilian gangster epic "City of God," a favela offshoot of Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas," is deservedly celebrated as one of the best films of the decade. So, anticipation had been keen for director Fernando Meirelles's follow-up, "The Constant Gardener," an adaptation of the bestseller about corporate conspiracies in Kenya by John Le Carré, who has long been acclaimed a literary master in America (although his fellow Brits tend to view him as a bit of a hack). And, indeed, early critical response for the film has been dutifully rapturous.

Sadly, "The Constant Gardener" is a disappointment, a motion sickness-inducing pseudothriller that leaves last spring's similarly themed "The Interpreter" looking masterful by comparison.

Meirelles appears to have been defeated by both the grinding difficulty of filming in impoverished, violent, diseased, and corrupt Nairobi, and by the smugness and preposterousness of Le Carré's plot about nice white people battling to save Africa from mean white people.

"Hotel Rwanda," despite its catering to white liberal self-obsession, at least was about some closely observed Africans. "The Constant Gardener," in contrast, exemplifies how cinematic political correctness, the fear of showing human differences, strips Africans of their distinctiveness, rendering them ciphers who merely suffer nobly at the hands of fascinating white villains.

"The Constant Gardener" of the title is a handsome but passive British diplomat (Ralph Fiennes of "The English Patient") married to a feisty but gorgeous activist wife (Rachel Weisz of "The Mummy"). Her anti-racist dedication is so saintly that she refuses to have their baby delivered at a white-run hospital. (If Weisz's character were real, she'd be appalling, but, fortunately, even the most radically chic put their own babies' survival above their ideological fashion statements.)

When she loses the child in a hellhole slum clinic, she barely notices because she can tell that the European scientists examining the dying tribeswoman in the next bed are up to no good. She discovers that the nefarious multinational pharmaceutical firm is testing a new tuberculosis drug in Kenya on patients dying of both AIDS and TB without obtaining -- you'll be shocked to learn -- their fully informed consent. (Although Le Carré's Cold War spy stories were endlessly praised for the moral ambiguity he discerned within the KGB, he portrays "Big Pharma" as the epitome of evil.)

Objectively speaking, overly aggressive clinical trials must rank about 312th on the list of Africa's most pressing problems, in-between overcrowded buses and hostile hippopotamuses. (Ludicrously, the screenplay claims that the evil corporation is cutting corners to rush the pill to market because of the obscene profits it will make preventing an epidemic of a new antibiotic-resistant form of TB that threatens to kill two billion people. In that case, the drug company would deserve a tickertape parade.) But, unlike Africa's major tribulations -- many of which stem from its traditional polygamous and matrilocal family structures that are profoundly dysfunctional in the modern world -- slipshod drug testing is one that can be rightfully blamed on white people.

Don't assume, though, that Le Carré and the American critics who revere him are consumed by White Guilt. They're not blaming themselves, just white people they already hated. White culturati use black victims as props in their endless competition to win superior moral status over other whites, especially ones who make more money than they do.

Meirelles has been telling gullible interviewers that being Brazilian gave him special insight into the Third World suffering of Kenyans. But the blue-eyed, redheaded director comes from a land that, while blighted by poverty, also features enough First World technical competence to make jetliners, not to mention terrific movies like "City of God." The Oscar-nominated filmmaker would have been wiser to shoot "The Constant Gardener" in South Africa, another country where crime and chaos coexist with modern proficiency. Instead, he imprudently chose Kenya, once perhaps the best-organized African country, but now badly decayed.

Visually, "The Constant Gardener" is so consistently out of focus, wobbly, over-exposed, and filmed looking up somebody's nostril from eight inches away that I had to move to the back of the theatre to keep from getting a headache. I suspect Meirelles found it unfeasible to get his Kenyan footage to look consistently well made, so he chose to make it all look bad in the hopes that the critics would assume it was his latest brilliant aesthetic breakthrough.

Rated R for language, some violent images, and sexual content/nudity.


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