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Movie Review

British diplomat Justin Quayle could not have married a more undiplomatic woman. He meets Tessa when she responds to his delivery of a lecture by publicly berating him and all that he and the British government stand for. They quickly fall in love after that, and when he travels to Kenya in the service of Her Majesty the Queen, she goes along as his wife.

While he's fulfilling his duties, she—unbeknownst to him—is gathering information about a huge pharmaceutical company which is using Africans as guinea pigs to test its latest-greatest tuberculosis drug. That, of course, gets her into plenty of hot water with the company and with its allies in the diplomatic corps. In fact the water is so hot that she ends up dead. That's when Justin unearths what she's been doing. And he determines to pick up where she left off.

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Positive Elements

The filmmakers dedicated their efforts to aid workers around the globe who have given their lives for the cause of others. And the movie's story line approves of and applauds such selflessness. Tessa knows she's risking her life in her effort to save the lives of people she doesn't even know, but she remains studiously oblivious to the danger. Justin, too, ends up considering his own life nearly inconsequential compared to the vast number of lives that are being callously squandered in Africa.

It could be easily argued that The Constant Gardener is a kind of political propaganda. After all, current administrations in Washington, D.C., and London take it on the chin a few times regarding the war in Iraq and other diplomatic policies. What isn't so easy is subsequently dismissing the film for such "infractions." It's the bigger picture here that deserves praise. And the bigger picture is that human life is valuable. Skin color and geographic location should never enter into our calculations regarding the welfare of people, the film passionately argues. And none of us—liberal or conservative—should resist that God-breathed ideology.

Early on, Justin downplays his wife's instinct to help others, convinced that because they can't solve everyone's problems, there's no need to waste any effort on individuals. He tells her, "We can't involve ourselves in their lives, Tess. There are millions of people. They all need help." She never buys that argument, and by film's end he's changed his tune and has come to believe that each of us must do what we can—when we can—to try to make a dent in the total need.

In the months leading up to Tessa's death, Justin begins to distrust her, and he fears that she is being unfaithful to him. She isn't. And after he learns the true facts behind the incidents that led him to his wrong conclusions, he expresses sorrow over not having trusted her despite the "evidence."

Spiritual Content

A "bulls---er" is labeled a "Bible thumper." There's a sarcastic reference made to a person trying to be "Jesus the healer." A doctor asks Justin if he thinks a man can "redeem himself with good acts."

Sexual Content

Shortly after meeting, Justin and Tessa go to bed together, and the prelude to their lovemaking is shown in sensual, skin-filled quick cuts as they undress each other (she's seen from the front in her bra and from the back when he takes it off). Later, after they're married and she is visibly pregnant, the camera looks on as she takes a bath. Lingering shots expose her nude body from the rear while she's toweling herself dry. Before that, her belly and her breasts are seen in the bath. (Flashbacks throughout the movie repeat sensual images of them together and of her bathing.)

To convince a diplomat friend to help her expose the immoral pursuits of the drug company, Tessa tells him that she will sleep with him. He agrees to the deal, but after her death it's revealed that she had no intention of living up to her end of the bargain. One of her colleagues is said to be gay, and a picture of him with his "boyfriend" is shown. A few sexual quips are exchanged; one of them hints at S&M.

Violent Content

The list isn't very long, but a few images (and their verbal descriptions) are disturbing. A mutilated man is seen hanging from a tree, and it's said that his tongue was cut out and his private parts cut off. Raiders use automatic weapons to shoot everyone they can while torching a small village. Discussions revolve around the fact that Tessa was raped and murdered. You're made to think for a short time that Justin kills himself. (He doesn't.) In a hotel room, Justin is attacked; he's hit, kicked and bludgeoned.

Not violent but still worthy of mention considering their onscreen impact are a few scenes involving death. One of Justin and Tessa's friends retches when he sees her dead body. And a baby is stillborn. (The camera doesn't assault us with images of the dead bodies; it concentrates on the reactions of those affected.)

Crude or Profane Language

More than a dozen f-words and a handful of s-words. Jesus' name is abused a half-dozen times. There are a few uses of British crudities "bloody" and "b-gger" as well as milder, more American, profanities.

Drug and Alcohol Content

At official functions, champagne and wine are commonly seen and consumed. A few (minor) characters smoke.

Other Negative Elements

As mentioned already, this film suffers somewhat from a case of too-black and too-white compartmentalization. Britain's and the U.S.'s policies as they relate to Africa and Iraq are dismissed as worse than useless. And pharmaceutical conglomerates are blasted for being as "bad as arms dealers." "The conspiracy is global. The corruption is contagious," reads the film's tag line, and while such a statement possesses elements of truth, the script has a tendency to overstate and over-implicate.

Conclusion

Intelligent thriller. It's a designation handed out with ease in the world of novels, but when it comes to movies, scant few can be so classified. Add politically charged and socially conscious to the mix and the list narrows to constriction. Based on John le Carre's book of the same name, The Constant Gardener takes American moviegoers across the ocean to another place, but more importantly it asks them to step outside of themselves for a few moments and consider the value of lives they rarely consider valuable. Or at best, rarely think about at all.

This is a message movie first and foremost, but it injects its agenda smoothly, using Ralph Fiennes' and Rachel Weisz's weighty performances and the compelling love story of their characters as something like sleight of hand to occasionally divert attention away from the gravity of what's being preached. Not quite Hotel Rwanda, but far better than Beyond Borders and easier to follow than The Bourne Supremacy, Gardener is in turn sentimental, rousing and convicting.

It is also decidedly R rated. Not that it needed to be. "There's gardening to be done," Tessa says. "There are weeds to be pulled out." She's referring to plucking out the root of corruption. But if the filmmakers had misapplied her instructions in the editing room and removed gratuitous nude scenes and obscene interjections, The Constant Gardener could have stood much taller—and prouder—on its celluloid soapbox.

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