Monday, November 14, 2005

Movie Review: The Constant Gardener

Go and see this film.

As you sit in the cinema silently weeping at the injustice of fictional African children dying needlessly to boost the profits of fictional multi-national corporations aided by fictional government officials ponder this: the truth is worse.

One of this weekend's big news stories was the HIV positive man who received no treatment for his condition and yet is now free of the virus. The experts on TV have said that this is impossible, but has definitely happened, but could be some kind of "freak" incident. Was I the only one paying attention in science at school? The scientists tell us that the HIV virus alters our DNA and that this process, once it has happened, is irreversible. They are now faced with a verified case of someone being infected with the virus and now being clear. So...their irreversible process has been reversed. And yet, no-one is willing to say, "Our initial hypothesis must be wrong." Come on, people, this is simple scientific method. If there is even one piece of evidence that is contrary to your hypothesis then that hypothesis must be wrong.

I wasn't at all surprised to find out that someone who tested positive for HIV could receive no treatment and yet later be tested negative, not after some of the stuff I've been reading online recently. Simple fact: no-one has ever actually found the AIDS virus. It's effects have been supposedly seen and recorded, but the actual virus itself remains illusive. Therefore, HIV tests do not actually test for the presence of the virus itself, but rather they look at the quantity of white blood cells in the patient's blood. HIV supposedly attacks the immune system so a lower white blood cell count will indicate the presence of the virus. Of course, it's a bit more complicated than that, but that's basically it. There is a strong suggestion that what actually kills people who are diagnosed as HIV positive is not the as-yet-to-actually-be-found virus, but the drugs that people are given to combat it.

Faced with evidence to this effect, the President of South Africa tried to stop the many, many people who are dying from AIDS in his country from receiving AIDS drugs. I say "tried" because I believe that he was ultimately unsuccessful, I'll let you speculate as to why.

What does this have to do with this film? Well, if this is all true then millions of people are not dying in Africa from a horrific sexually transmitted disease...they are being systematically poisoned by multi-national pharmaceutical companies. The Constant Gardener does not nearly go this far, although it is lightly hinted at, but at it's core is the theme of corporate disregard for African life.

Ralph Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a British diplomat working in Africa, who falls in love with and marries Tessa, played by Rachel Weisz. Justin and Tessa's is a wirlwind romance and there is an ever-present suspicion that she is just using him. Her close relationship with African doctor Arnold Bluhm adds to Justin's suspicions and it is very clear that she is hiding a lot from him. What remains clear is that Justin is totally in love with her. Justin's world is turned upside down when Tessa is discovered brutally murdered somewhere she shouldn't have been, and Arnold has gone missing.

All this sets up a tense and interesting thriller, but, of course, that's not what this movie is really about at all. Tessa's big secret was not an affair with Arnold, but that she was investigating a pharmaceutical company's testing of a new TB drug. They know the drug can be potentially fatal but they can save themselves millions in redevelopment costs by testing it on Africans and then disposing of those who suffer this unfortunate side effect.

This film succeeds by showing you an Africa that we very rarely get to see on our TV and movie screens. We are so used to seeing Africans portrayed as famine victims, or as backward people who persist in tribal warfare and barbarism...but here they are simply people. Yes, this film does this most successfully when highlighting the needless suffering of children. Yes, that is manipulative. But it gets the point across, and that point is valid.

"The Constant Gardener" could easily have become a worthy and boring film, but every time the movie threatens to flag and start to bore, the director introduces yet another excellent British actor to recapture your interest. Bill Nighy and Pete Postlethwaite are most notable for this. Both pop up almost when you least expect them to and light up the screen.

The backbone of this film, though, is the relationship between Justin and Tessa. Both Fiennes and Weisz deserve oscar nominations at least for their performances here. They expertly portray what is a genuinely complex, touching and very real relationship. The secrets she is forced to keep from him for his protection drive them apart but at the same time it's clear that it's their love which keeps them firmly together.

This is a very brave film but one can't help but think it's a shame that many who see it will simply dismiss it as a work of fiction when it is clearly trying to highlight very real injustices which are taking place in our world today. Indeed, I've already seen it described by one on-line commentator as "another piece of anti-capitalist propaganda." It is a shame that those few people who are brave enough to point out just how badly we have treated the people of Africa can be so easily dismissed as "bleeding heart liberals."

Life is life, and all life is equally precious. The fact that so many can so easily dismiss the deaths of so many because they are a different colour or because they are a long way away is, frankly, chilling.

In closing, go see this film.

Rating: 9/10


Ingrid said...

I totally agree with you, fantastic film. Oscarworthy and shocking.

IanDSharman said...

Wow! A comment! At last!