Adapted from a book of the same name by renowned author John Le Carre, The Constant Gardener brilliantly exposes a story of the alarming capacities of power and greed amongst the pharmaceutical industry while depicting sacrificial love for the sake of justice.
The unflinching portrayal of restless Brazilian youth in City of God certainly qualified Meirelles to direct such a politically charged and internationally relevant film, but it was his observations between his home country and pharmaceutical companies that connected him with the story itself.
"I’ve been reading about pharmaceuticals for a long time because in Brazil there was a conflict between the pharmaceutical industry and the government," he says. "Four or five years ago they (the government) were trying to lower the cost of drugs so they could really spread the [AIDS] program, make the program happen, and the companies didn’t want to change their prices … and Brazil started to produce generics."
Although his country succeeded in reducing its AIDS death toll without the help of large pharmaceutical companies, he says he became enlightened to just how much lobbying power the big industries have when it comes to hurtful trade sanctions.
The Constant Gardener doesn’t unfold in Brazil, however, but the East African nation of Kenya. It is there that British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) is informed of his wife Tessa’s (Rachel Weisz) accidental death not too far from their home. Through a series of clues and impassioned investigations, Justin discovers his wife’s death was not an accident, but a murder that can only be avenged through political justice and corporate accountability. A conspiracy involving a multinational pharmaceutical company becomes more lucid every step of his way, and his deceased wife’s crusade breathes through him.
Weisz defines sacrifice and the opportunity to play a selfless activist as her core attraction to the role of Tessa Quayle.
"I’ve always been fascinated by those who devote their life to helping other people," she says. "There are people in India, in Africa who are devoting their lives to help people … putting their lives in danger in order to help other people. I’ve always been fascinated by what is it that drives these people."
According to Le Carre, Tessa was based on a real-life charity worker named Yvette Pierpaoli who died at the age of 60 while working with Refugees International.
"She was someone who would do anything, I mean anything," says Weisz. "She would stop at nothing to do what she believed was right, to get justice to be done."
Through a series of flashbacks we learn that the relationship between Tessa and her husband is both endearing and disassociated. It is disassociated because Tessa chooses to keep the extent of her lobbying private so as not to endanger her husband’s distinguished work. After her death, however, Tessa’s research is revealed, plunging her husband into a disturbing truth: A multinational pharmaceutical company is using impoverished Kenyans as guinea pigs in tuberculosis drug testing.
Although this specific storyline is fictional, the sensational scenario is not, according to Meirelles. "This plot is based on something [similar] that happened in Nigeria, actually. It’s almost the same thing, but a different drug," he says.
Besides the book itself, the documentary Dying for Drugs provided Meirelles with additional insight into the pharmaceutical industry’s profit-seeking mode of operation; the film documented Pfizer’s controversial testing of 5,000 patients suffering from meningitis with their product Trovan in 1996.
Meirelles evidently commits himself to relaying the story as directly as possible. He fills the scenes with on-location shots in Kenya, texturing the film with authentic landscapes and actual locals. Besides the main storyline, the film also manages to seamlessly involve a side story about the civil war in Sudan.
The film’s sense of urgency and hard-hitting reality permeates every dimension of the story, from the lessons of power and profit, to love and commitment, to not-so happy endings.
An outstandingly rare film, The Constant Gardeneroffers a sharp allegory for an international issue that has not, until now, been explored on such a visible scale.
The Constant Gardener is currently in theaters.