Near the end of the closing credits to The Constant Gardener, the following dedication appears on screen: “to Yvette Pierpaoli and all other aid workers who lived and died giving a damn.” Pierpaoli, a friend of the novelist John le Carré, was working on behalf of Refugees International when she was killed in Albania in 1999. So moved by Pierpaoli’s rigorous commitment to helping the poor obtain food, money, and shelter, le Carré took from her example several qualities in fashioning Tessa Quayle, the martyred heroine of his 2001 novel. The setting becomes Kenya, and Tessa, an idealistic young Englishwoman devoted to improving healthcare for impoverished Africans, gets in the way of a pharmaceutical company that brandishes the Orwellian-sounding motto, “The world is our clinic.”
Le Carré’s truth-derived fiction is now an emotionally stirring, aesthetically thrilling film by the Oscar-nominated Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, in the follow-up to his cinematic breakthrough City of God.
Meirelles and the screenwriter Jeffrey Caine preserved the nonlinear structure of le Carré’s book. In the novel, Tessa dies on page one: in the film, scene two. And so the movie becomes a dual process of discovery for Tessa’s widower Justin, a mild-mannered diplomat who serves at the Nairobi outpost of the British High Commission. Justin, tending to his plants and nasturtium seeds, knew very little about his wife’s role as an activist. Only after her death does he learn the extent of her involvement, and at the same time, he traverses his memories of how he and Tessa met, fell in love, lived together. Issues of technology and memory entwine in the film’s emotional centerpiece, as Justin watches a video of Tessa waking him up one morning; the screen within a screen memory of a playful, private encounter takes him from the beginning of their affair to the threshold of a glass door, a portal to the house they shared in Kenya. These overlapping sequences connect love and eroticism to loss and are so astonishingly well crosscut that the movie’s editor, Claire Simpson, might justly share screenplay credit with Caine.
Ralph Fiennes, who has played a fair number of swaggering rakes on film, seems liberated by Justin Quayle’s moderate conservatism. The sweet modesty of the character allows Fiennes to dig a little deeper into himself. When a colleague breaks the news of Tessa’s death, Justin first expresses sympathy for the bearer: “Good of you to tell me…couldn’t have been easy for you.” As Tessa, Rachel Weisz brings off a rare achievement for any actor: she personifies the part so vividly that when she isn’t on screen, we miss her as much as Justin does. The writer Emma Forrest once described Weisz as an “über-brunette,” and perhaps nowhere is Weisz’s great, dark beauty more apparent than in The Constant Gardener. Something seemed to be missing in her American film roles; here, the London-born Weisz, with her voice like deep water, finally gets to be British with a vengeance.
Meirelles told me that he had never heard of Danny Huston prior to making this film. Someone gave him a tape of Bernard Rose’s ivansxtc, and on the strength of that one performance, Meirelles cast Huston as Sandy Woodrow, the High Commission’s Head of Chancery, and one of the slipperiest creeps imaginable. Huston has an elegantly controlled field day in Gardener, light years away from his stumbling gumshoe in John Sayles’s Silver City. Even the minor characters are impeccably realized. The film features the French-African stage actor Hubert Koundé, best known to moviegoers for his work in La Haine a decade ago, as Tessa’s right-hand man Dr. Arnold Bluhm. In smaller still yet no less incisive characterizations, there are Archie Panjabi as Ghita, a South Asian woman who serves on the High Commission, and Anneke Kim Sarnau, as the head of a German watchdog group that monitors corporate malfeasance.
The East African nation Kenya also emerges as a star, through the lens of longtime Meirelles cinematographer César Charlone. Just as they established an indelible sense of place within the favelas of Rio in City of God, Charlone and Meirelles show sides of Kenya that most of us wouldn’t otherwise see. They compose horizontally sloping shots of the snow-like salt flats that surround Lake Magadi. Several key scenes depict the bustling Kiambu vegetable market, and the crew built no sets for the film. The realism of the locations thus adds another layer in and of itself. The morgue where Justin identifies Tessa’s body is in fact the Nairobi City Mortuary. The maternity ward, Pumwani, where Tessa’s hospitalized, is a real place that serves Nairobi’s poorest women. There’s no running water at Pumwani and, according to local press, the hospital has “a higher-than-average mortality rate.” The film’s crew took two days to clean the ward before they could shoot, and yet, Meirelles tells me, “This is where women have their babies.”
On the morning in mid-August that the filmmaker and I meet in downtown Seattle, he sports a close red beard to match his red hair. Meirelles has a quiet, almost self-effacing personality. He expresses slight amazement that the coffee I’m drinking isn’t from Starbucks. After a brief primer on my “anything but Starbucks” philosophy, we begin.
N.P. Thompson: One of the beautiful things about Constant Gardener is how convincingly Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz play husband and wife; they really do seem to be a perfectly mismatched pair, especially when Justin teases Tessa about not naming their baby, “Arturo or Gisette or Che…or any of your hippie-ish, alternative, revolutionary names.” How did Ralph and Rachel become involved in making the film?
Fernando Meirelles: That scene was improvised, actually. Ralph made up his own lines. He was attached to the project before myself. Mike Newell was supposed to shoot, but he left to do the new Harry Potter movie. Ralph was already there; he had to approve of me, not the other way around. Rachel was filming Constantine in Los Angeles. She had a couple of days free and came to London; I was quite impressed that she flew 22 hours for a one-hour meeting with me. She had read the script and the novel and formed several ideas of what Tessa was like—she knew more about the character than I did, because I was thinking of locations and trying to bring crews together. I spoke to other actresses, but in the end we came back to Rachel. She’s so human. I remembered when we first met Rachel had the same passion that a political activist would have. There’s a certain weakness as well. In some scenes, she plays Tessa as fragile and insecure, and that I really like.
NPT: Well, she creates a character who cares so deeply about her cause that she almost can’t help but sabotage it. At the cocktail party, for instance, at the Lord Errol restaurant in Nairobi, Tessa insults the guests of honor right off the bat, and there’s that great look of dismay on Rachel’s face: Tessa knows she’s lost a chance to be heard.
FM: Yes, and that scene that you mentioned in the nursery and the scene that comes before that, in the bathtub, where she’s laughing at Justin imitating Jacques Cousteau…or the little scene where they go to bed, which is also improvised, all those scenes were just a couple of lines in the script. When you’re improvising, you come up with fresh lines that the other actor isn’t expecting, so he reacts in a different way. One of them starts to say something, cuts the line in the middle, and for some reason, you can really feel it. It’s like a real relationship. You’ve seen the film, and you felt they were a couple. Rachel and Ralph were really interacting—they were not acting.
NPT: What other ideas did Ralph bring to playing Justin?
FM: He helped a lot to prepare the character. He likes to know what was going on with Justin internally. But at the same time, Ralph has an obsession with wardrobe. He takes two weeks to choose a shirt, and the shirt that he chose was a nightmare for us. He wanted something very specific, and he didn’t know what. He chose several different ones, then finally somebody in the picture had the shirt, this pink, sort of salmon-colored T-shirt, and Ralph said, “Let me try this.” And it was very worn, a very old shirt. “This is perfect! This is what I want to use.” But we could never reproduce it so we could have three or four for him to change in and out of. All these scenes where he wears it are in the dirt. So we’d ask him, “Ralph, what about another shirt, so we can have several that are similar?” And he would say, “No, no, the salmon one has texture; I can feel it. This is the right one.” We’re shooting in a sub-Saharan climate, and he’s sweating. Every night we would have to wash that shirt, and the next day we had to match the same kind of sweating. It became a big, big deal on the set. T-shirt!
NPT: The look of your film is extraordinary. The narrative bounces around in time, and some of your compositions are deliberately disorienting. In one split focus, you have a tire spinning in the left foreground, and over on the right, in the distance, white birds flock over the surface of Lake Magadi. It’s wonderful, but what we’re seeing is the aftermath of a murder. How did you decide to frame the shot that way?
FM: [he laughs, and looks at me as if I’ve just asked the silliest question in the world] The idea was not to reveal too much. I didn’t want to explain. What I like in the script is that you’re never exactly sure what’s taking place. Does Justin have a lot of integrity or is he just weak? I like the gray areas very much. But the framing itself, the compositions—they’re not planned. We never storyboard. César Charlone, he’s a brilliant cameraman. So it’s just his eye.
NPT: You studied architecture in school. Does having that background inform your field of vision in making movies—or is that too far-fetched a comparison?
FM: I think I have a very good sense of space and of structure. I don’t think that has anything to do with my architectural skills. I see this film like a box from beginning to end—this will go here, that will go there—like a construction site. I have it all very organized in my head; that’s why I don’t need to storyboard. It’s funny, because I’m very disorganized in my personal life: I lose my keys every day.
NPT: I love how you structure some of the gray areas on screen. I’m thinking of the moment when Bill Nighy, who’s playing the head of the British High Commission, takes Justin to lunch, and they’re talking about Tessa, but the camera focuses instead on a black statue of a warrior whose hand extends outward, pointing at something outside of the frame. Then you have an aerial close-up of a plate of grilled sole.
FM: This is the great thing about not planning the film in your office. You go on location, and you have your options open. I had never been inside this gentlemen’s club in London, where that scene was shot. I just decided on the day that the sculpture would be part of the movie.
NPT: When you were on location in Kenya, and you were filming in Kibera, a slum that’s part of Nairobi, the screenwriter Jeffrey Caine accompanied the cast and crew. He said this about the children in Kibera: “They follow you everywhere, not begging for hand-outs but putting out their hands to be held.” Was that also your experience?
FM: Yeah, when you walk there, they come and hold your hand. There’s a scene with Rachel walking, and the kids come up and say, “How are you? How are you?” They speak Swahili and this is the first line they learn in English, so when they see white people, the boys want to use all their English. Wherever you go, “how are you? How are you?” It’s lovely.
NPT: They seem eager for contact.
FM: They’re actually very friendly. They haven’t been taught to be afraid of strangers like children in the West. Sometimes we were speaking with their mothers about the kids coming to talk to us, and the Kenyan mothers would say, “Of course! Don’t the children do this in your country?” And we’d say no. We teach them to be kind but not to talk. And the Kenyans didn’t get that—they’re the opposite. Kibera is such a poor area, but at the same time, there’s such a spirit. After you’re there for half an hour, you really feel at home.
NPT: Tell me about the music in the film, because you have both an African score by the Kenyan singer Ayub Ogada and a European one from Alberto Iglesias, and they’re extremely evocative, particularly the Turkish clarinet solos [by Javier Paxariño] in the Iglesias. Could you tell me a little bit about your choices in incorporating the two?
FM: I called Alberto because of his work with Pedro Almodóvar, especially Talk to Her, which I think has a beautiful score. And I wanted something very emotional to follow Justin’s journey. The big challenge was that I wanted the film to feel African, to have a lot of references to Africa, but to avoid obvious motifs, such as drumming all the time. Alberto came up with the idea of having an orchestra with a few strings and other instruments. He recorded the orchestra first, then we brought in Ayub Ogada, and he played the nyatiti, a kind of harp, over that. Ayub would hear what Alberto composed, then improvises with his nyatiti almost throughout; if you listen again, you’ll hear it. Sometimes in a track, there’s only one or two moments [imitates harp strings plucking], and that’s it. Very subtle and punctuating.
NPT: It’s a glorious soundtrack. One of the other things that stood out to me was your inclusion of shots that establish the hierarchy between working-class Kenyans and the white Brits they serve. These don’t advance the plot per se, but you’re communicating something when you show us cooks hustling in a hotel kitchen or black domestics carrying drinks on trays.
FM: I wanted to have a lot of comparison between first world and third world. So you have this sequence where the server opens the door to the kitchen, and inside it’s a mess. There’s a scene on a golf course where the diplomats are having a round; the camera pans to the left, and you’re back in the shanties of Kibera. It’s the same idea: two worlds divided by a wall.
NPT: Were you adamant about sidestepping the clichés of a genre film? In the footage you shot in Berlin, Justin meets Birgit, an activist from a watchdog group that had worked with Tessa—this is after Tessa’s been murdered—he and Birgit are outside her son’s kindergarten, and she’s trying to dodge Justin because of the danger of being seen with him. What’s striking is that you don’t build tension in the usual ways. There’s no heightening of the music telling us to watch out, as there might be in most thrillers. The sense of uneasiness becomes that much more intense, because you underplay it.
FM: I wasn’t trying to do anything different. The truth is that I’m not a very big thriller fan. I don’t watch many of them; in my life, I’ve seen just a few that I liked, and I simply don’t know how to do a thriller. I have no references at all. There’s one film that I loved, and this was a point of reference for me—The Insider by Michael Mann. I thought it was brilliant. The camera is always so close to Russell Crowe, you can see the world from his perspective.
NPT: Well, I think it’s probably to your benefit that you haven’t watched a bunch of genre thrillers. Are you going to make any more films in Brazil?
FM: That’s my idea. The question would be, “Are you going to make more films in English?” and I’m not sure. The career that I’d love to try to pursue is like Pedro Almodóvar. To make Brazilian films for international audiences as he makes Spanish films for a world audience. Maybe in five or six years, I might do another film in English. But I really want to tell Brazilian stories. Or even international stories from a Brazilian point of view. I don’t have much to add to a story in the U.S.; there are so many good directors here, why would I? They invite me a lot, but I don’t think I’m the right guy.