The Constant Gardener – Film Review

The Constant Gardener
Film:  The Constant Gardener, based on a novel by John le Carré
Director:  Fernando Meirelles

Book Review by  Dr Jonathan Ingleby, Redcliffe College.

My first thought when sitting down to write this review of The Constant Gardener was that this is a film that everybody involved in Development work should see; my second thought was that they have probably already done so and it’s the latter which makes me anxious.

Why are people, especially Christians, not creating an almighty fuss?  Why is everything so quiet?  Somebody has hurled this massive rock into the pond and it has just sunk without trace – no splash, no ripples, nothing.

(Incidentally, the book is even more shocking than the film.  In his brief ‘Author’s Note’, Le Carré makes a simple unelaborated claim: ‘As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realise that, by comparison with reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard’.  Also, the film attempts a ‘happy’ ending in that at least some of the institutional crooks get their ‘come uppance’ while in the book they get promoted.)

So why is The Constant Gardener (I am talking about the film again) something we should be upset about?  Obviously, part of our concern should be about Big Pharma.  Here we have something – the pharmaceutical industry – which is apparently ‘on the side of the angels’.  It is a product of that gem of the Western Enlightenment project ‘medical science’; it is evidently part of ‘Progress’, ‘Development’, ‘Health’ – some of the very big words that validate our work as caring Christians.  And apparently it is not like that at all.  It is rather a part of the way that multi-national corporations exploit the Global South to the advantage of the Western world.  If we had been talking about the Arms Trade, or even some of the extractive industries, then we might have expected something of the sort – but health care!

Again, what about Big Government?  In our hearts we feel that our government (I am speaking as a Brit here), despite some failures, is working for us.  It, too, is ‘on the side of the angels’.  But The Constant Gardener suggests not.  Big Business, Big Government: it is difficult to know who are the greater villains.

Again, what about Development?  One of the most disturbing and well-shot sequences in The Constant Gardener is Justin’s visit to the aid camp.  It raises many questions, but here is just one of them.  Why are we distributing aid to people and yet doing nothing about the civil war (or local raids and skirmishes) that make it ineffective?  As Tessa puts it (this is the book again): ‘Loki [the aid distribution centre] sucks.  It has no more right to exist than the Berlin Wall.  It’s a monument to the failure of diplomacy.  What the hell’s the point of running a Rolls-Royce ambulance service when our politicians do nothing to prevent the accidents.’

The Constant Gardener is a film about passionate people.  Some are passionate for the wrong reasons.  The film neatly reveals how many people -some with half good motives – are caught up in the desire to advance their careers, make money, make a name for themselves, and how much drive this gives them.  (I am reminded of David Livingstone’s question ‘Can the love of Christ not carry the missionary where the slave trade carries the trader?’).  Some like Tessa and Arnold are passionate for justice for Africa.  Justin is simply passionate to be constant to the memory of his dead wife.

So what are we Christians passionate about?  (No don’t tell me. I already know. It’s Harry Potter, Jerry Springer the Opera and the Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill.)  Isn’t it time that we did our Development work with a little anger mixed in?  Seeing The Constant Gardener – or seeing it again – might help.

Back to Issue 14

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