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Source: Adults

Author: Philip Roddis

Title: Film Review: The Constant Gardener

Other than their superior characterisation, and an intimacy of detail suggesting personal experience of the worlds his characters inhabited, what always lifted John Le Carre’s writing above the spy genre pure and simple was his refusal to indulge in easy moral judgments. Neither the taut elegance of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold nor the elaborate chess moves of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy gave more than a nod towards comfortable free-world versus empire-of -evil certainties. If the bleak absurdities and dead hand of centralised planning were observed with steady eye, so too were the cynicism and sleaze of the west. (And if that ever put him at risk of nihilistic, plague on all their houses abdication of his responsibilities as a serious author, the demonstrable humanity of Le Carre’s People provided more than adequate insurance.)

The publication in 2001 of The Constant Gardener therefore answered two questions, not one. Besides settling any doubts that the ending of the cold war would also see the drying up of Le Carre’s inspiration, the novel proved him capable of taking a clear and unambiguous moral position. His outrage – less at global capitalism’s continuing rape of Africa than at the mix of patrician contempt and supine pragmatism of the Foreign Office mandarins who oil its wheels – pours white hot from every page. That’s a new departure but, since all the other elements of the Le Carre brand are present and correct, the novel resonates long after its plot, in an uncharacteristic triumph of drama over plausibility, has been resolved and the book put down.

And the film? Here’s a fistful of reasons why you should see it. One; it’s a John Le Carre story, for God’s sake! Two; tip-top performances from Ralph Feinnes and Rachel Weisz bespeak with rare beauty the elusive chemistry we call romantic love. Three, superb portrayals of other members of the traditional ruling class – Bill Nighy the bloodless puppet master in Whitehall; Danny Huston the sporty chum whose personal weakness (in more senses than one) lead him to personal treachery (in more senses than one); Donald Sumpter as Donohue, head of Dirty Tricks, who against all the odds (and don’t we just love it when this happens?) plays a dashed decent card at the eleventh hour – are matched by an equally superb Gerard McSorley as Kenneth Curtess, whose knighthood does nothing to disguise the vim and vulgarity of New Money.

(On reason number three, one short scene alone makes the film a must-see. We’ve just moved from Kenyan shanty town to golf course of shimmering emerald, where new and old rulers are pitted against one another in – you got it – more senses than one. Curtiss shoulders his clubs, prompting Donohue to observe that “you must be the only white caddy in Africa, Kenny”. The response is brutally eloquent. As Donohue taps towards the hole for an easy putt, Curtess spits out the incontrovertible fact that “I don’t play by your fucking rules, Donohue”. To emphasise the point he places his boot inches in front of the hole to kick the latter’s ball into the long grass. After a silky move or two on other fronts, Donohue returns to the ostensible game in tones of purest Etonian. “We’ll call that one in, shall we?”, he purrs. Nor is it giving too much away to note that these vitriolic bubblings, beneath a surface of fragile cooperation, will lead Curtess into giving the good guys a surly helping hand. It’s classic Le Carre. The shenannigans of individual human beings never buck the system, but they do at times rock it.)

Four; that love between the principals, though at times more engaging than convincing, provides a clear lens for making sense of a plot whose intricacies might otherwise be too much for a film lasting just over two hours. Five; Africa itself – squalour and breathtaking beauty; venality, torpor and quiet heroism – is brought to life with an insistence rarely seen in mainstream cinema. Whether as intelligent conscience rouser, tight thriller or tragic love story, The Constant Gardener is not  to be missed.

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