Saturday, September 29, 2007

Review: The Constant Gardner

Originally posted on Monday, October 10, 2005

We have heard lots about the movie "The Constant Gardner", so we went to see it. I've had plenty of training for long, talky stories in barely comprehensible accents through having been a fan of "Mystery" on PBS, so no complaints there. The movie unfolds in gorgeous visuals. The quality of colors and the scenery are manipulated to direct the story. Gray in England, dull and closed in when focusing on the main character until he "wakes up", then brilliantly lit, with broad vistas of landscapes in Kenya and the Sudan.

But the movie's focus and plot make it just another "tragic white people in Africa" story with an "exotic" National Geographic-esque gorgeously filmed backdrop of bright sunshine and shantytowns and colorfully dressed indistinguishable people, oh so picturesque despite their poverty and illness and suffering. There's a weird, offhand attitude toward babies and children in the movie, too. Going back through the newspaper reviews, I don't find anyone else disturbed by how entrenched is the whole idea of people in non-white areas of the world as the "exotic setting" for white people doing good, expiating their guilt, having tragedies, etc. Or that the beautiful cinematography seems to lessen, rather than reinforce, the terrors of life in the shantytowns and the Sudan.

After hurricane Katerina it is surprising that anyone would be interested in this retro bit of offhand racism. Suffering and poverty are not a picturesque backdrop in an exotic locale. If Africa is too remote, think of people waving for help from the roofs of drowned buildings in exotic and beautiful New Orleans. People stuck in the storm because of their poverty.

There was a disclaimer at the end of the titles (I always watch the titles) from the novel's author John LeCarre, something like this--"Nobody in this story, and no outfit or corporation, thank God, is based upon an actual person or outfit in the real world. But I can tell you this; as my journeys around the world progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard."

So I guess the point was to alert those who haven't noticed that corporations are out there doing Bad Things. But I also get the feeling that most people who liked the movie didn't know what Africa looks like and were more interested in the gorgeous pictures (and the old fashioned non-electric music on the sound track) than in the political machinations. Those who recommended it also probably appreciated the "adult" quality of a movie that "dares" to have a tragic ending.

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