Of all those who made a living off the Cold War (nuclear arms dealers, the Republican Party), possibly the person most adversely affected was spy novelist John Le Carré, whose gritty exercises in geopolitical existentialism held a legion of fans in thrall for decades.
Or so I've heard, having never read a Le Carré novel or seen a film based on one?#34;until the latest, The Constant Gardener, which provides a glimpse of where one goes once one's specialty is altered forever by the fall of Communism and the triumph of capitalism.
In this case, he goes to Africa with a suspense thriller about First World vs. Third World conflict and the moral corruption of capitalism.
Ralph Fiennes, once the English patient, now the English gardener, plays a bureaucrat who allows a firebrand activist (played by Rachel Weisz) to stow away with him on an assignment to the continent where man's inhumanity to man is most painfully in evidence. They fall in love and marry, but her secretive activities, which lead to her untimely and increasingly suspicious death, make him wonder if he's just been used.
For an isolationist nation, this film marks a refreshing change of pace, offering as it does a more realistic treatment of the agony of Africa than most Americans have been exposed to?#34;except in brief nightly news sound and video bites.
The effect on the viewer is a bit overwhelming, as it is on Fiennes' character, who would rather "not get involved in these people's lives," preferring instead to tend his own garden.
That central metaphor, though easily grasped, isn't developed as fully as it should have been. But this is one of those films that's at the mercy of trying to adapt what is surely a densely packed novel, which means much gets short shrift in its headlong rush to include as much as possible.
The tale is told in flashbacks, complicating the processing capacity of the average audience member and demonstrating further why the best films are usually made from overly simplistic "bad" novels. Films like The Constant Gardener, on the other hand, fall into the category of "too much of a good thing."
But it's engrossing anyway and worth the viewing. Fiennes and Weisz lead a talented cast, the settings provide powerful imagery, and a film with strong moral values (not the Red State kind) is always welcome.
The story?#34;about a First World pharmaceutical industry willing to treat Africans like guinea pigs in order to create medicine for the privileged?#34;indicates Le Carré still has a knack for identifying the pertinent good guys vs. bad guys. The central character's world view is expanded by his love for his lost wife. He is redeemed even as he is destroyed by uncovering the secrets of the untidy world that exists beyond his tended garden.
That's the kind of unhappy ending we could use more of from Hollywood.