In even the most fulfilling marriages, there are times when we feel as though we don't really know each other:  Some unexplained silence or over-exuberance.  A spouse's glance at someone at a party that seems to communicate more than it should, finding an unexpected piece of information hinting that something is not as it seems.  But when these incidents occur with a spouse who truly is keeping a secret, even if for our own protection, then diagnosing the health of our marriage becomes almost impossible.  This is the plot of John le Carre's novel, The Constant Gardener, brought to the screen by director Fernando Meirelles.

Part expose against the use of poor people of the third world by pharmaceutical companies to test their products, and part a love story between an activist young woman and a career diplomat of the English crown, The Constant Gardener speaks of the ways we avoid knowing the truth.  Whether it is the question of who our spouse really is, or the question of what evil pharmaceutical companies may be doing in Africa, both the defense and the accusation is that some choose to retreat into gardens to care for plants.

The gardener in our tale is Justin Quayle (Ralph Feinnes).  An amiable recluse whose family has for generations served in the diplomatic corps, Justin is adept at finding refuge in his garden.  He also hides out there among the safety of his plants rather than risking his life.  Having to cover for a higher officer in the government and deliver his lecture, Justin becomes enamored at the passion of a young reporter there named Tessa (Rachel Weisz).  Tessa is everything Justin is not.  She is impetuous and brazen, willing to risk everything to find out the truth.  But she is also a good-hearted woman who is willing to risk in the affairs of love and openly seduces Justin.  As is often true of love, their opposite attraction hooks both of them in a journey that costs them far more than they ever could have realized.

Most of the tale is told as light and dark, where the darkness of their lives in Africa is compared with the lightness of their lives in Britain before their marriage.  This cinematic technique allows us to understand the flashbacks as they only hint at explaining the mystery of the darkness they encounter in Africa.  This weaving of past and present, marriage and mystery creates a compelling film that speaks to the larger moral and ethical issues of life.

Though the film clearly claims to be fiction and not based on any true-life diplomat or pharmaceutical company, the feeling that this may in fact be happening is unavoidable.  If there were companies who saw the poor of Africa as expendable, it would be unconscionable and we should all be willing to risk our lives to stop it.  And if there is a loving spouse whose ethics and moral passions lead us into danger, then we should not hide in our garden but get involved with them and work together to change the world.

The Constant Gardener is a powerful tale of life and love which haunts us in its telling.  Its clear message of love-affirming relationships and morality-affirming activities is an uplifting story.



  1. When we see fiction that seems to be based on some truth, it is difficult to know how to respond.  Did you see this film and check out whether there are pharmaceutical companies testing their products on the poor?  If not, why not?  If so, what did you find out?
  2. Tessa seems to support Justin's retreat into his garden.  Why do you believe she would do so?  Did she like it that he was not involved and if so, did it help her feel safe?
  3. The marriage is clearly established as one of convenience so that Tessa could go to Africa.  Did you believe this true, even from the beginning?  Or did Tessa love Justin and use the African mission as an excuse to get him to marry her?  Would he have ever proposed if she had not?
  4. Do you agree or disagree that the ultimate sacrifice that is paid by some of the characters in the film seems not to have been supported by the realities they were up against?  Why or why not?
Posted on June 1, 2011 and filed under 3 STARS, THOUGHTFUL.