Political Film Society - Newsletter #234 -September 15, 2005

September 15, 2005


The Constant GardenerThe novels of John Le Carré have established a reputation as superb spy novels involving government agents. The film The Constant Gardener, directed by Fernando Meirelles, is based on another Le Carré novel, but the subject is espionage of industrial dirty secrets. The first fifteen minutes of the movie are somewhat puzzling, as they shift back and forth in time and place, seeking thereby to establish the premise that Justin Quayle (played by Ralph Fiennes) deeply loved his wife Tessa (played by Rachel Weisz) despite her many extramarital affairs. They meet in London, after diplomat Quayle delivers a lecture on behalf of an absent colleague. Tessa rises in the audience to importune Quayle about Britain's involvement in the Iraq War as a betrayal of the principles of the United Nations. After the exchange, they make friends, end up in bed, and soon Tessa is begging Quayle to take her along on his next diplomatic posting in Kenya, whether as a mistress, wife, or whatever. They marry, she gets pregnant, and they leave for Kenya, where Tessa decides to volunteer as a health aide to a medical clinic. However, she pursues an agenda hidden from her husband: She believes that a pharmaceutical company is secretly conducting clinical trials for a new tuberculosis drug through a British aid agency that ostensibly dispenses drugs to UN-run clinics in order to combat the HIV virus, and she interacts with Internet interlocutors as well as officials in Kenya. The scandal involves overcharging for the HIV drugs, agencies using aid money to line their pockets and to make profligate overhead expenses, a Faustian pact between a pharmaceutical giant and a testing firm, using Kenyans as guinea pigs for a clinical trial of an unsafe TB drug, approval of the arrangement by the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Bernard Pellegrin (played by Bill Nighy), bribery of Kenyan and later Zimbabwean officials, overt racism about the expendability of African lives, and ultimately the intimidation and assassination of whistleblowers.

As one character opines, "Pharmaceuticals are right up there with arms dealers." Quayle, however, is oblivious of his wife's agenda and sex partners until she suddenly turns up dead under mysterious circumstances. Quite the fastidious gardener, Quayle calls upon his attention to detail in order to track down those who caused her death--and why. As he disturbs the sleeping dogs, including the balancing act of British Ambassador Sandy Woodrow (played by Danny Huston), he becomes a target himself and ultimately is killed, but not without leaking the documents to his deceased wife's cousin, who exposes the plot, including the role of Pellegrin, who is being rewarded by a lucrative position with the pharmaceutical giant. The plot calls attention to many human rights issues that seldom receive attention and treats filmviewers to a gratuitous Janjaweed-type raid; Kenya, after all, borders on the Sudan, though on the South, not the West. The cinematography of Kenya reveals not only natural beauty but also the squalor in which ordinary Kenyans live. Indeed, the two protagonist actors were reportedly so shocked by the slums and abject poverty of Kenya that they have set up a trust fund to provide assistance to the poor. Despite the lack of any pretence to being a true story, Le Carré clearly is aware of how pharmaceutical giant Pfizer not long ago administered an unsafe antibiotic in Nigeria to combat bacterial meningitis in order to obtain licensing for the drug after a ban in the West because of damage to the joints that potentially causes arthritis; the number of deaths and extent of side effects from Pfizer’s tests is still secret. As the film's tagline says, "The conspiracy is global." Accordingly, the Political Film Society has nominated The Constant Gardener as best film on human rights of 2005. MH

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The Constant Gardener
by John le Carre

Using his privileged access to diplomatic secrets, Justin Quayle will risk his own life, stopping at nothing to uncover and expose the truth - a conspiracy more far-reaching and deadly than Quayle could ever have imagined.