The Constant Gardener
Produced by Potboiler Productions and Scion Films
Directed by Fernando Meirelles,
Screenplay by Jeffrey Caine from John Le Carré’s novel
Distributed by Focus Features

What’s in your medicine chest?  Aspirin, ibuprofen, antibiotics?  Let me prescribe another medicine: John Le Carré’s disturbing novel, The Constant Gardener (2001), and its recent screen adaptation directed with rat-a-tat-tat urgency by Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles.  You will never think about pharmaceutical companies in quite the same way, unless, of course, you are already aware of how vast sectors of this industry have been taken over by corporate charlatans.

While many complain about pharmaceutical prices, most of us like to think of the industry as one that is fighting honorably to protect us from the natural shocks of living with microbes and wayward cells.  Ever since penicillin was developed in the 1940’s, we have been taught to trust each new wonder drug as one more milestone in our march to a perfectly disease-free world.  Over the past 60 years, however, well-educated confidence men—the descendants, no doubt, of an earlier era’s patent-medicine hucksters—have gained influential positions in many of the pharmaceutical giants and have exploited the public’s trust unconscionably.  These gentlemen stand ever-ready to suborn governments, rig drug trials, bribe the medical profession, and plunder the unsuspecting public—all in the mighty cause of profits, their shareholders’ preferred therapy.  They routinely mark up their drugs 20, 30, or more times over their real cost and recklessly rush new remedies onto the market.  Should anyone have the temerity to question their policies, they huffily respond that their prices reflect their high research costs.  As for failed drugs, they are the unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of trying to deliver superior healthcare.  They fail to mention that they routinely avail themselves of publicly subsidized research conducted in academic and government laboratories.  Nor do they acknowledge their practice of drastically reducing their R&D costs by copying other companies’ successful drugs.  The cox-2 inhibitor Vioxx is the perfect example.  Inspired by Celebrex, Pfizer’s $3.3 billion per year home run, Merck decided to play piggy-back with its own version of this arthritis pain reliever.  In order not to run afoul of Pfizer’s patent, Merck reformulated and renamed what was essentially the same medication, claiming it was more effective.  This was true in some instances.  It occasionally relieved patients of their pain permanently by giving them fatal heart attacks.

These exploitative and dangerous policies caught Le Carré’s eye a few years ago, and he decided to air them in Gardener.  He located his narrative in Kenya and invented a Swiss pharmaceutical concern, KVH, whose advertising includes the tag line, “The world is our clinic”—a slogan brimming with portent.  KVH, we learn, has developed an experimental drug designed to combat tuberculosis.  With the collaboration of the readily corruptible Kenyan government and the behind-the-scenes support of the British government, KVH is using the largely illiterate Kenyan population to test and refine its aptly named drug, Dypraxa, always making sure that, before being inoculated, their uncomprehending patients check off a card stating they are giving their “informed consent” to being used as guinea pigs.  KVH has determined there is a global TB epidemic on the horizon, and they are racing other pharmaceutical firms to come up with the drug that everyone will need to fend off infection.  Wall Street expects to make billions in this “tuberculosis market,” and KVH hopes to be a principal player.

Dypraxa kills TB alright, but it sometimes kills its patients.  Rather than halting the trials, KVH makes the economic decision to continue them, reformulating the drug as they go to find a safer rate of toxin delivery.  They are determined not to fall behind in the race to come up with a cure that they can sell in the developed world.  Meanwhile, Kenyans continue to die.  Sound familiar?  AIDS patients underwent a similar experience with the early use of the antiretroviral drug AZT that Wellcome, now part of GlaxoSmithKline, rushed to market in 1984.  First developed in 1964 as a cancer drug, AZT was deemed too toxic to be used safely.  Pleading urgency and a patient population demanding immediate treatment, Wellcome took AZT off the shelf and released it without the usual mandatory trials.  As a result, tens of thousands died, including many HIV patients who had displayed no symptoms and may have needed no treatment of any kind.  Le Carré seems to have had Glaxo-SmithKline, a.k.a. GSK, in mind when he gave his fictional pharma KVH its initialed identity.  It is also of interest to note that TB is often called AIDS in Africa.

It is against KVH’s skullduggery that the narrative introduces its protagonists, Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) and his wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz).

Quayle, a career diplomat, is the perfect gentleman, unfailingly polite and almost painfully diffident.  For his niceness, he is repaid with contempt by his colleagues, who think him an over-educated wimp, quailing from anything unpleasant—such as, say, his wife’s suspected affair with a Belgian Congolese doctor, Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé).  And, indeed, Quayle gives color to their estimate with his quiet demeanor and constant pruning.  As Tessa says of him, he “dreams of a world without weeds.”  Having concluded many years earlier that human beings are quite hopeless, Justin has no illusions about his efforts in the foreign office.  Although he is officially called on to mouth such phrases as “Diplomacy is the soul of civilization,” his aspirations are limited to tempering contemporary barbarism with his personal decency.  Otherwise, he has taken Candide’s advice and tends to his own garden.  Well into his 40’s, he had managed to live without any deeper commitments, never marrying but rather availing himself of bored wives charmed by his cultivation and kindness.  He calls to mind one of Evelyn Waugh’s terminally decent gentlemen, such as Tony Last in A Handful of Dust.  He is entirely unobjectionable, the kind of fellow you can depend upon to decorate a distinguished gathering of well-heeled worldlings, someone who would never raise his voice or utter a troubling opinion.  So reliable is he that the Foreign Office’s high commissioner chooses him to deliver his speeches when he cannot bother showing up in person.  It is on just such an assignment in London that he meets Tessa, a 24-year-old fledgling barrister and born rebel, a Roman Catholic troublemaker in a well-mannered Protestant kingdom.  The attraction between these polar opposites is immediate and fatal.  Tessa thinks Justin’s prudence will protect her not just from others but, principally, from herself.  He finds her reckless passion and her talent for utter commitment to people and causes irresistible, if trying at times.  As he remarks, she is that rare thing, “a lawyer who really believes in justice.”

Taking an assignment in Nairobi, Quayle settles down with Tessa and goes about his uneventful life of diplomacy at the office while meticulously gardening at his new home.  Tessa, meanwhile, plunges into social activism, focusing on the Kenyan poor living in the slums of Kibera.  In the process, she discovers KVH’s drug testing and decides to investigate.  She realizes that not only is the drug dangerous, its use deprives the Kenyans from receiving safe TB medications.  Appalled, she writes a carefully researched report on her findings with Dr. Bluhm’s help.  When the Foreign Office’s high commissioner in London learns of her study, he orders it squelched and her stopped.  No wonder.  He has been quietly serving KVH interests in return for their pledge to open a large plant in Wales.  Furthermore, he has hopes of one day being appointed to KVH’s board of directors after he retires from government service.

From this point, the narrative becomes more like Le Carré’s earlier espionage thrillers.  Mayhem breaks out, and people go undercover.  I will say no more other than to make some observations about the performances and the direction of this extraordinary film.

Ralph Fiennes was born to play Justin Quayle.  With his lean, almost ascetic body and deep, reflective eyes, he perfectly embodies a quiet man who thinks too much, the epitome of the retiring gentleman.  When Tessa runs afoul of the powers-that-be, however, he takes fire.  His soft face hardens, his usually evasive eyes now bore through his newly recognized enemies.  He becomes a presence, an unstoppable moral force.

As Tessa, Rachel Weisz is a thorough surprise.  In her other films, she has never seemed more than standard feminine decoration, but here, she displays a wily intensity, by turns driven and flirtatious, a woman with a cause who has not lost her girlish savoir faire.  All the other performers—English and African—are also fine.  They seemed to have been inspired by the narrative and Meirelles’ direction.  As the Kenyan head of chancery, Danny Huston is an unctuous careerist, and, as the Foreign Office’s high commissioner, Bill Nighy perfectly incarnates the effete patrician phony who assumes everyone else was born to serve his whims.  As for the direction, Meirelles has cleverly simulated Le Carré’s fractured narrative technique, shuttling back and forth over the story’s incidents with a jittery camera so that plot revelations jump out at us in fits and starts from behind veils of deceit.  Despite some changes to make the conclusion more palatable to the general audience, Meirelles has been quite faithful to Le Carré’s concerns, especially his primary theme: the need to confront the corporate state’s evil by means of individual sacrifice.  In an article Le Carré published simultaneously with the release of his novel, he explains he could have illustrated the dehumanizing effects of huge economic interests with the tobacco or oil industries, but big pharma “had everything: the hopes and dreams we have of it; its vast, partly realised potential for good; and its pitch-dark underside, sustained by corporate cant, hypocrisy, corruption and greed.”

The necessity of sacrifice to preserve one’s soul in a world of massively organized politico-economic forces has been Le Carré’s brief ever since his 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, in which his protagonist, espionage agent Alec Leamas, is compared to a priest several times.  One character even misspells his name as Le Mass.  At the novel’s end, Leamas offers up his life not for England or Western democracy but—quixotically, by the world’s standards—for a single individual, the one good person in the story, Liz Gold.  She is the well-meaning, naive Marxist who becomes ensnared in his assignment to rehabilitate a former Nazi now heading up East Germany’s intelligence operations while collaborating with the British.  When Leamas finds he cannot save Liz’s life, he chooses to die with her rather than escape his communist captors behind the Iron Curtain.  His act is meant to mortify the Cold War intriguers, both East and West, and momentarily cleanse the world of their hideous denial of the individual’s worth.  Only the heroism of Christ-like sacrifice, Le Carré seems to say, can redeem a world otherwise drowning in its unacknowledged moral despair.

I do not mean to suggest Le Carré is a religious writer in any usual sense of the term, but, clearly, he is taken with the Christ story and has adapted it—however secularly—as the one viable hope against the darkness of life under the sway of the mega corporate state and its fawning political minions.  Unless the individual stands against this benumbing, regimenting force, the idea of the human will go to the wall as it nearly did under fascism and communism.  This, finally, is the theme of The Constant Gardener.

Commentators keep saying that Le Carré has had to change his focus since the end of the Cold War.  I don’t think so.  He is still after Goliath.  Instead of the Soviet Union and the political reaction it induced in the West, he now takes aim at something that is almost, if not just, as threatening: the juggernaut of gargantuan capitalism intent on flattening us until we are all morally supine subjects of the global consumer society.