It seems that every review I write has to include a bit where I complain about the film’s title, and The Constant Gardener is no exception. It’s not even about gardening. It’s about politics or something. When a British activist (Rachel Weisz) is killed in Northern Kenya, her diplomat husband (Ralph Fiennes) uncovers a dangerous conspiracy implicating pharmaceutical companies and the British government.
This 2005 thriller seems to be the kind of film I’d really like. It’s based on a John le Carré novel, it’s overtly political, it stars Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes, Bill Nighy… So to quote Pearl Jam, what went wrong? Well, Pearl Jam, for a start the plot is a convoluted mess; a confusing story that’s so contrived it might as well be called The Coincidental Gardener. It appears that director Fernando Meirelles recognises the plot’s shortcomings, and attempts to compensate with flashy filming, shooting clunky conversations at awkward angles. Weighty political and dramatic themes are dislodged by attention-deficit direction and inappropriate shaky-cam. It’s as if the film can’t decide if it’s The English Patient or The Bourne Identity.
The Constantly Gardening also feels politically uncomfortable, misrepresenting poverty in a typical Hollywood way. I’d never heard the phrase “poverty porn” until the recent debate over the Channel 4 show Benefits Street, and it seems like a stupid label. The show isn’t even that sexy. But The Endless Lawnmower certainly seems guilty of romanticising poverty, with touristy shots of African children accompanied by “ethnic” music. It’s most reminiscent of those serious segments on Comic Relief during which you go to the toilet. To the point that you expect Jonathan Ross to appear and seamlessly segue into a clip of James Corden hula hooping or David Walliams molesting members of the public.
This gives The Covent Garden an eerily New Labour vibe; a piece of pro-interventionist grandstanding, which even ends with a preachy speech over yet more stock footage of poverty. The white characters walk around Kenya with their chinos and floppy haircuts, attending champagne parties and hiring black staff. It’s all uncomfortably post-colonial and patronising. Even the sex scene has a creepy New Labour feeling about it; the most unsexy erotic encounter since the one between Cherie and Tony Blair in his autobiography.
As we sit awkwardly in the midst of awards season, it’s easy to see why this movie was so eagerly decorated; this is an Oscar film through and through. The Green Giant is admirable in theory but disappointing in execution. The performances carry the piece but cannot distract from the film’s many problems; the visual style is misjudged, the dialogue stilted and the politics condescending. No wonder the Academy loved it.