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September 5, 2005
Movie Review: The Constant Gardener (Spoilers!)

I decided to take a break from all of the storm-related blogging I'd been doing this weekend, as well as the NARN shows that occupied all of the last two weekends, and take the First Mate out to dinner and a movie this evening. We don't see too many first-run movies; the excellent The Great Raid was the last we saw before tonight. I hoped for an extension of the winning streak with The Constant Gardener, about which I had read nothing. However, with Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz in the leads and a solid supporting cast, and a story by John Le Carr, the prospects looked good for another good film.

Boy, did I miss that bet by a mile.

Here There Be Spoilers. Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Pass.

The Constant Gardener takes a clichd and hackneyed plot about eeeevil pharmaceutical companies and chops it into an almost-unintelligible stew, not just conceptually and mechanically but visually as well. Fernando Meirelles, who directed the highly-regarded City of God three years ago, must have decided to make TCG into his own personal Oliver Stone homage. Not since Any Given Sunday has a director presented such an ostentatiously shot movie. Scenes wiggle in and out of focus, extreme closeups of eyeballs and lips cut in and out of wide-angle shots, and actors mumble their lines while Meirelles uses MTV-inspired filtering and editing to make the film look gritty and original.

Unfortunately, Le Carr has ensured the failure of that effort by essentially writing a remake of The Fugitive. In that film from 1993, a pharmaceutical company kills the wife of the protagonist to keep secret the deaths of its human-trial patients during the trials of its new wonderdrug. The wife in TCG, just as in The Fugitive, keeps revisiting the screen in flashbacks, although in TF Sela Ward gets killed by accident and in her flashbacks she's not naked and very pregnant. (Laughably, a leering comment from Danny Huston gets a semi-humorous scolding from Weisz' character before and after Meirelles sexualizes Weisz in the same manner suggested by Huston.)

In TCG, though, the film takes its plot much more seriously than in TF, which used it as a sprinboard for action. No, in this film, the patients are African AIDS victims that have unwittingly been testing a new drug designed to combat a superresistant form of TB that the film assures us will soon create a plague, infecting one in every three people globally. The pharmaceutical company stands to make billions, but rather than fix the formulation that creates the excess mortality and delay its entry into the market -- which doesn't even exist yet! -- it decides to commit fraud instead, and kill anyone who gets in their way.

This sounds crazy; for one thing, one cannot conduct trials without understanding the cause of death, and using AIDS patients as test subjects would give any trial for anything but experimental AIDS treatments would create a high mortality that might have nothing to do with the TB treatment. When people die during the trials, the pharmas simply dump the bodies into unmarked graves without autopsies, meaning that no one knows what killed them. Everyone assumes the TB drug, Dypraxan, kills the patients, but no one actually does any work to find out for sure.

Now, given the litigiousness surrounding the drug companies (think Vioxx, for example), does anyone think that CEOs sit around plotting to use formulations that kill a large percentage of their patients? The concept has so little connection to reality that it almost caused me to laugh out loud. The reason given by mysterious German underground opponents of this conspiracy is that the upcoming plague will create such demand that the makers of Dypraxan cannot afford to wait for a reformulation that might take two years and give their competition an opportunity to make it to the market first. However, the film's own scenario predicts more than two billion infected with this plague, which means that the market would surely support more than one treatment for it -- and that no one company could possibly keep up with the demand for treatment.

Forget common sense in a film where Weisz and Fiennes meet cute after she disrupts his lecture by denouncing the Iraq War, loudly and rudely, and apparently make such a connection that faster than anyone can say 'global warming', the two have knocked boots in her trendy Chelsea townhouse. Fiennes' diplomat character then gets induced by Weisz into taking her with him to Africa as his wife moments later, to which he blithely agrees, whereupon she promptly embarrasses him by insulting other diplomats. This continues during her pregnancy and after the stillbirth of their child, after which she gets more and more secretive as she gets closer and closer to the conspiracy that eventually murders her.

This film misses no chance to play PC, not with the script, not even with the cinematography. While the African scenery invariably gets shot in the most vivid colors possible, any activity with the British gets shot through blue filters to drain the life out of the screen. When Weisz' child dies at birth, she breast-feeds the newborn infant of an African Dypraxan victim, tears running down her face. The African doctor assisting her in uncovering the conspiracy (Hubert Kound) is secretly gay.

Most egregiously and laughably, TCG shows its naivet in its grasp of politics and culture. One series of scenes towards the end of the picture demonstrates this. Fiennes must find a doctor (Pete Postlethwaite) who helped conduct the trials in order to find out who killed his wife. He winds up at a tribal village just as it gets raided by horsebacked riders. In real life, we would know these killers as the Janjaweed -- radical Islamist Arabs determined to drive Sudanese animists and Christians off the land. The film never points this out.

Later, when one of the girls gets aboard the UN plane out of Darfur with Fiennes and Postlethwaite, the pilot refuses her entry. When Fiennes offers to bribe the pilot, the UN employee stiffly warns the British diplomat not to "embarrass yourself". Remarkably, TCG finds the one UN employee in the entire organization not taking bribes! When the girl runs off despite Fiennes' efforts to rescue her, he asks Postlethwaite what will become of her. Postlethwaite replies that "if she's lucky, she'll make it to a refugee center." That doesn't even qualify as a bad joke; UN refugee centers in Africa hardly give young girls any luck, where UN peacekeepers and staffers routinely turn such unfortunates out as prostitutes in order to get food and water.

In the end, the results of such lazy and politically correct writing are sadly predictable. We know who ordered the killings, and why; we knew it halfway through the movie. We know that the lessons we must learn are that pharmaceutical companies are eeeevil, as are any companies that compete for profit. The only constants in TCG are the constantly pompous performances of the Good Guys and the constantly devious natures of The Bad Guys. My prediction: this film will get at least seven Oscar nominations, including Best Director, Best Actor and Actress, a possible nomination for Kound as Supporting Actor, and probably Best Film. Hollywood is the only town that could possibly believe this drivel.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 5, 2005 12:10 AM

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