Wild Things

'The Constant Gardener' & 'Grizzly Man'

Based on the novel by John le Carré, Fernando Meirelles’s film The Constant Gardener takes us to an Africa overwhelmed by poverty, disease, and crime—a place so desperate, the dead are buried in concrete graves to keep thieves from stealing their wedding rings. The gardener of the title is a British High Commission officer named Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a man who has reached midlife with no ambition beyond tending his flower garden, and little use of his intellect beyond fashioning sophistical diplomatic arguments for inaction in the face of injustice. Then he meets Tessa (Rachel Weisz), a brash law student who interrupts a tedious London lecture on diplomacy Quayle is delivering to upbraid him for the sins of British foreign policy. Opposites attract, and soon Tessa is asking Quayle to take her back to Africa with him. “In what capacity?” he wonders, and she shrugs: “Your girlfriend, your mistress, your wife.” Thrilled by such impetuous unconventionality, Quayle answers it by marrying her, and off they go.

In Kenya Tessa becomes a champion of the poor. Befriending a Belgian-African doctor named Arnold Bluhm, who shares her activist zeal, she plunges into Nairobi’s shantytown slums. “You’ve got to do something about Tessa,” urges Quayle’s superior at the High Commission. What dismays Quayle is not embarrassment but danger—and the lurking suspicion that Tessa and Bluhm are romantically involved. These fears converge dreadfully when the two depart on a risky trip to a remote region of Kenya. Days later Tessa turns up dead, and Bluhm has vanished; gossip in the expat community settles on an affair gone terribly awry.

After his wife’s death, Quayle wades reluctantly into her letters and journals. The personal secrets soon open to larger, political ones. Tessa, it turns out, had been looking into the misdeeds of a big pharmaceutical company whose experimental antituberculosis drug, Dypraxa, is being rushed to market despite serious side effects—with impoverished Africans serving as medical guinea pigs. Did someone kill her to shut her up? Haunted by visions of his wife, Quayle takes up her cause. His superiors warn him off: “It’ll do you no good to go digging under rocks, Justin. Some very nasty things live under rocks.” But he digs anyway, and soon we’re into death threats and false passports, skullduggery on three continents, evil pharmaceutical giants, and a global holocaust waiting in the wings.

Le Carré’s novel inhabits a moral universe far less murky than the precincts of ambiguity where the author first made his name. Such cold-war spy classics as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold were animated by an abiding pessimism about simple truths; cold-war struggles afforded “no victory and no virtue,” le Carré once said in an interview, but merely “a condition of human illness and a political misery.” In The Constant Gardener, though, illness is no mere metaphor, but a crime perpetuated by corporate profitmongers cultivating a billion-dollar TB market. Too often the novel reads like an angry diatribe against corporate malfeasance, adorned with sentimental descriptions of Tessa’s courage (“the cold-eyed lawyer in her...decided to ignore a death threat rather than imperil her quest for justice”). It’s a book by a writer wearing not only his heart on his sleeve, but his noble intentions as well.

So it’s exciting to watch a director turn le Carré’s mediocre novel into a superb movie. Meirelles is a popular Brazilian TV director who came out of nowhere two years ago with City of God, a sensational Dickensian study of teeming, violent life in Rio’s slums. Clearly, a similar potential drew him to The Constant Gardener, and with big splashes of color and sound he inundates the urge to exhort that made the novel feel so dryly self-righteous. As in City of God, Meirelles evinces a perfect feel for crowded, impoverished urban places and the people in them, for their neediness but also their humor, their music—their humanity, in short. Again and again César Charlone’s camera pans across the view from railroad tracks high on a ridge above the endless African shantytown, its rusted iron roofs stretching almost as far as the eye can see, like a mountain range. A haunting music of plucked lyre strings, chanting choruses, and wailing solos creates moods from raucous to mournful; jittery, close camera angles alternate with magnificent panoramas of the East African savanna, shimmering lakes, and flights of flamingos. The Constant Gardener conveys an impression of poverty and beauty mixed, and of lives so numerous that they are disposable. Brilliantly, Meirelles turns what was preachy in the novel into visual poetry.

He is helped by excellent performances in both lead roles, giving flesh and blood to characters who were mere types on the page. Fiennes is the epitome of pale, self-effacing Oxbridge old-boyism, while Weisz’s Tessa is bluntly confrontational and brazenly sexy. Working from Jeffrey Caine’s script, Weisz invests Tessa’s political vehemence with a powerful erotic charge. The lovemaking scenes between the two evoke a tender, playful, and astonished delight, as the repressed Quayle discovers a world he hardly knew existed. “Thank you,” he says, “for the gift you’ve given me.”

For Quayle, the sensual discovery anticipates the moral one; the movie explores the deeply passionate nature of political commitments. “I could have helped you,” he whispers after his wife’s death, tormented by the thought that his very mildness killed her—his non-committal nature keeping her from disclosing what risks she was taking. Toward the end of the film, Quayle makes a frantic, fruitless effort to save one child, echoing an earlier, similar attempt his wife had made, which he had forced her to abandon, lecturing her about its pointlessness. The Constant Gardener suggests that a diplomat’s stance is inherently tragic. To inure yourself to individual suffering may be necessary to functioning sanely, but it imperils your soul; it cuts you off from the particular, and in the particular lies our capacity for passionate humanity. Le Carré’s novel failed because it took these truths and, like the pre-Tessa Quayle, turned them into a lecture. Meirelles takes idealism and makes it sexy. Talk about redemption.

The famed German director Werner Herzog has made a career of celebrating rebels and risk-takers, outcasts and oddballs, and his highly praised documentary Grizzly Man captures one of the riskiest and oddest. Herzog’s subject is a forty-year-old American named Tim Treadwell, an ex-surfer and would-be actor cum animal-rights activist, who spent years in the remote reaches of Alaska’s Katmai National Park living with bears. Treadwell fancied himself a kind of Dr. Doolittle, and affected to treat the grizzlies like friends—giving them nicknames, playing with them, talking with them in tones of cloying familiarity. His goofy, looney brand of naturalism aroused admiration, consternation, and mockery, including dire warnings that things would end badly. And indeed, as Herzog informs us at the outset, Treadwell and his girlfriend were gruesomely mauled to death two years ago.

Treadwell documented his adventures extensively on camera, and Herzog worked from one hundred hours of the dead man’s video, adding interviews with friends and critics along with his own voice-over narration. While Treadwell’s footage includes some awe-inspiring scenes of bears, fishing and fighting, more often he kept his camera trained on himself. We see him nuzzling foxes, crying over the death of a bumblebee, celebrating his own status as fresh prince of the ursine world, and fulminating in rage against assorted human enemies. Herzog’s take on all this remains hard to discern, and one begins to suspect that a preference for the mythic and heroic has blinded him to Treadwell’s sentimentality and narcissism. Then, two-thirds of the way through the film, Herzog informs us that he and his subject represent a difference of opinion. “Treadwell saw nature as benign and harmonious,” intones the director, “whereas I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos, and murder.”

Oops! Several people in the audience laughed, startled by such matter-of-fact Germanic bleakness and the contrast it makes with Treadwell’s treacly, and supremely American, cuteness. It is to Herzog’s credit in Grizzly Man that he doesn’t judge Treadwell, but simply stakes out his own position at an opposite extreme, leaving you to locate yourself on some middle ground, where nature is out not to love you or to murder you, but simply is.


Related: Richard Alleva's review of Fernando Meirelles's film Blindness
Rand Richards Cooper's review of Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Published in the 2005-10-07 issue: 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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