The Constant Gardener

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Review by Justin Spencer

  • The name Teresa, or Therese, is common in the recent history of the church. It's most recognizable bearer is perhaps Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who founded the Missionaries of Charity. This Catholic Congregation, like its founder, is dedicated to the free care of HIV/AIDS suffers, tuberculosis patients, the mentally ill, abandoned children, lepers, refugees, etc. All the outcasts of world are their charge. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a bearer of that name who was not dedicated to such efforts. St. Teresa of Avila and St. Teresa of the Andes are both patron Saints of sick people. St. Therese of Lisieux is the patron saint of tuberculosis and AIDS sufferers. Curiously enough, she is also the patron Saint of such things as African missions and flower growers.


    It is no coincidence that the heroine of John le Carre's novel, The Constant Gardener, is named Tessa, which is short for Teresa or Therese. In Fernando Meirelles 2005 film adaptation, Tessa is an embodiment of all the name implies. She cares deeply for the sick in Africa, specifically tuberculosis patients being taken advantage of by major drug companies.

    Justin Quayle, as his last name indicates, begins the film if not fearful then at least timid. He is a diplomat, which means he's a peacemaker; he doesn't want to cause any trouble. At the same time, his first name makes us think of justice and allows us to understand that, while not bold, he is good. We are meant to see that there is virtue that lies unawakened in him, hidden by a reticence to offend and face danger. The film is the story of the effects of this awakening within Justin and it's first cause, which is love.

    When the two protagonists first meet, their particular elements of character are in play and their roles set. The scene is a lecture hall in London. Justin is reciting a speech in place of and written by Sir Bernard Pellegrin, head of the British African desk. What we hear of it is mind-numbingly dry. Justin reads in a stumbling, nervous voice calculated to limit controversy. Upon concluding, he demurely thanks those in attendance for their attention, though it's clear that they have all be anxious for him to finish as quickly as possible. Tessa then raises her hand and proceeds to embarrass Justin with probing and belligerent questions about the British involvement in the Iraq war. Justin's first response to this is typical of his character, he deflects, "Well, I can't speak for Sir Bernard." But Tessa won't let him off the hook. "I thought that's why you were here," she says. Against, he deflects, "Diplomats have to go where their sent." Without a pause she retorts, "So do labradors." After everyone has left the hall, he carefully walks up to her and says that she was courageous and impassioned, two things that he is most certainly not. Although she politely apologizes for the outburst, it's clear that what she has said has set the hook. Tessa's sheer force of will and demand for justice and charity frighten Justin, but they also draw him in. She becomes his patron Saint, and so begins the slow alteration of his character from a man content to live a comfortable and peaceful existent to a man who is willing to give all he has for, as Christ would call them, "the least of these."

    This movement is symbolized by the change from garden to desert. To Justin a garden is a peaceful place, and for the longest time, he had been able to carefully feed and water his plants, to keep that world under his control, and thereby refuse entry to the demands and dangers of caring for and loving the people in his immediate vicinity. They are the ones who truly need food and water, but they also present far more complications. Every time we see him gardening, however, Tessa bursts through the wall he has created and forces him to lift his eyes. He is gardening when she walks in and demands to be taken to Africa with him, tossing aside the illusion of safety and control he has manufactured for himself. He is gardening when she finds out that he has been carelessly using a pesticide made by the very same drug company against which she is fighting, and she becomes furious, which then challenges Justin's acceptance of indifference. He is gardening when he learns she has died, and he crushes the plant he had been tending, a visual representation of his choice to leave off being frightened or timid. From that point, the setting alters. The story of Justin's salvation begins in the green and growth of a garden and moves out into the dust, dirt, and dryness of the desert. At first he clings tightly to safety and control of his plants, but he gives up his life on the shores of a desert lake populated only by crocodiles. His death is not meaningless. It is a bold act, courageous and impassioned, and he gives it up in imitation of the martyrdom of his wife.

    The story rings quite true in my mind. I know for myself, and I suspect for many others, Justin is a recognizable character, in that his personality is similar to my own. I would much rather live in the peace, comfort, and safety of the American existence than relinquish my indifference to the suffering I see around me. Christ's demands that I love my enemies, feed the hungry and sick, care for the orphan and widow, protect the innocent from the oppressor, and ultimately take up my cross and follow him into death are frightening. They are not safe. But as the lives of Christ and the Saints show, and The Constant Gardener again reveals, love forces courage and passion into lives that were once characterized by fear and timidity.

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      July 13, 2017

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    • The Constant Gardener | truelala
      February 13, 2020

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