Film review: The Constant Gardener

John Le Carré’s novel of multinational duplicity and governmental complicity is brought to the screen.

This is definitely a film worth seeing – for the quality of the acting, for the beautiful scenery, and for the anti-imperialist content.

The anti-imperialist content consists of an exposure of the activities of pharmaceutical multinationals in oppressed countries. The film shows how these companies are prepared to provide medical services to people, but only if they are willing to be guinea pigs for the testing of new drugs.

In The Constant Gardener, one such new drug turns out to be unsafe for some people to take, but, rather than withdraw it and go back to the lab to come up with something better, the multinational in question hires thugs to murder all those in the know in the most gruesome way. The drug company’s motivation for these murders is simple: having spent a considerable amount of money on developing and testing the new drug, it wants to get the go-ahead to manufacture and start selling it as soon as possible, never mind the risks to people’s health.

We therefore see that, in the pursuit of profit, imperialism is prepared to put lives at risk. The film goes further, and shows that the imperialists are assisted in this by government officials in both the imperialist country and the oppressed country – naturally, since they are all at the service of imperialism.

So far, so good. However, an important characteristic of the writing of John Le Carré, on whose novel this film is based, is that he can always see the other side of the question and the merits in the arguments of the opposition. Thus, in his cold war spy novels, although he is firmly on the side of British imperialism, he also from time to time gives the reader a glimpse of the legitimacy of the point of view of the opponent. Likewise in Little Drummer Girl, while to all intents and purposes on the side of Israel, the author comes over as almost progressive as he explains Palestinian grievances.

In The Constant Gardener, while being apparently on the anti-imperialist side, Le Carré gives us a glimpse of the ‘legitimate’ point of view of the imperialists, namely, that they are developing a drug that is intended to save millions of lives in the case of an epidemic of a resistant strain of TB; that, were it not for the medicine provided to the guinea pigs, far more of them would have died for lack of medical care than the tiny handful adversely affected by the test drug.

It seems to us that the net effect of the film, although apparently anti-imperialist, could well be to make people feel that at least some of the evils of imperialism can be tolerated in the interests of the greater good.

When watching the film, it is important to remember that pharmaceuticals multinationals are only a small part of the whole imperialist fabric. The massive profits being extracted by imperialist financiers, and the whole system of unequal trade, have all made for the fact that the masses of the people of the oppressed countries are desperately poor and have therefore no access to medical care.

We need to focus on the injustice that the masses of people in resource rich African countries live in such abject poverty as a result of imperialist looting that they are willing to risk their lives as guinea pigs for the multinationals. Provided we remember this, however, the film is very much worthwhile.