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The Constant Gardener directed by Fernando Mereilles
Adapted from the novel by John Le Carré
John Le Carré's novel The Constant Gardener is a devastating attack on the role of the pharmaceutical multinational companies and their ruthless cynical exploitation of Africa. Like his more recent book, Absolute Friends, it reveals a Le Carré who has become increasingly enraged by the excesses of capitalism during the 1990s, especially the Iraq war.
Both these novels are by far the best works he has produced since the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the former USSR and Eastern Europe - which were the background to his excellent thrillers about the secret services and such celebrated characters as George Smiley in Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy.
The film, The Constant Gardener, directed by Fernando Meirelles, is in marked contrast to his previous work, City of God. However, it does only credit to the novel and is a powerful depiction of the real role of the major drug companies.
The story is of a plot to expose the Three Bs and KHC drug companies. A major TB epidemic is anticipated and a new miracle cure, Dypraxa, stands to make these companies billions of pounds once the epidemic hits. However, the drug needs to be tested. A delay of three years to allow for modifications to the drug would cost too much. So the drugs are simply tested out on HIV positive Africans. The result is speedier death at the hands of Three Bs - a calculated mass murder. As one African doctor put it in the film: "This is how the world fucks Africa".
The central plot deals with the exposure of the scandal by Tessa Quayle (played by Rachael Weisz) and her diplomat husband, Justin (played by Ralph Fiennes) who works for the Foreign Office at the High Commission in Kenya. She is determined to expose what is happening. He begins life as the 'fluffy', impeccable diplomat unaware of what his wife is up to. They meet at a conference early in the film, where she makes an impassioned attack on the Iraq war.
Her murder, along with that of Arnold, an African doctor, shatters Justin's world and exposes him to the brutal ruthlessness of the pharmaceutical giants and their drive for profit. The official version put to Justin is that Tessa and Arnold were having an affair and were murdered when away for a weekend. However, he becomes aware that in fact Arnold was gay and his suspicion is aroused. Justin is driven to unearth the murder and cover-up which involves the drug companies, the Kenyan government and the British state.
Sir Bernard Pellegrin, of the Foreign and Commonwealth office, played by Bill Nighy, gives a masterly portrayal of a representative of the English ruling class. The understatement of language and impeccable politeness is a velvet glove that covers a cold steel fist that is used to defend class and 'national' interests.
The film is not without its humour as Tessa embarrasses assorted diplomats and government officials at official receptions and parties. But its central theme is the drive for profit by the drug companies. "They are no better than the arms industry", complains Ghita, one of Tessa's friends.
The film differs from the book in some ways. Justin's detective work is shortened, as is his travel. The film is seen more through the eyes of Kenya than the British diplomatic service.
However, Mierelles has directed a powerful film which although providing no solutions, firmly puts the drug companies and the British diplomatic service in the dock and is well worth going to see.
The actors succeed in bringing Le Carré's characters to life. The filming, on location in Kenya, reveals some spectacular shots. If anybody thinks that the story is a bit far-fetched, they could consider John Le Carré's comments about his novel: "As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realise that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard".
The Constant Gardener by John Le Carré
Hodder and Stoughton £7.99
Available from Socialist Books
In The Socialist 24 November 2005: