Science in Society Archive

I-SIS Film Review

The Constant Gardener

A beautiful film that borrows from Greek tragedy but just misses the mark.
Sam Burcher reviews

The Constant Gardener

HIV drugs pushed on the poor

“Whose map is Britain using when it completely ignores the UN and decides to invade Iraq?” demands the feisty young activist Tessa, played by Cambridge educated actress Rachel Weisz, in the film The Constant Gardener.

Her question is directed at mild-mannered British High Commission diplomat Justin Quayle, who is immediately seduced by her. They marry and take up residence in Kenya, where Tessa Quayle immerses herself in Kenyan culture with the resident aid agency doctor, Arnold Bluhm.

Together, they visit the shantytowns where she steps over piles of rubbish and sewage rotting in the streets, and he gives out the anti-HIV drug Nevirapine to pregnant women.

Nevirapine, they obviously don't know, has killed mothers and children in clinical trials in Uganda and the US. (See NIH-Sponsored AIDS drugs trials on Mothers and Babies and Guinea Pig Kids in AIDS drugs trials

TB drug trials kill patients

The plot of the film builds up around the symbiotic relationship of KDH (the makers of a fictitious wonder drug for the much-hyped TB epidemic called “Dypraxa”) and the Three Bees Corporation testing the drug in Kenya.

Tessa gives birth to a stillborn son in the government-run clinic, where she witnesses the death of HIV positive 15-year-old Wanza Kilula, who has also just given birth, having been an unfortunate guinea pig in a Dypraxa trial conducted by the drug inventor Dr Lorbeer.

Activists silenced

Tessa writes a report exposing the cover up of patients' deaths in Three Bees trials. Again, with Bluhm, she sets off to gather the clinical data from Lorbeer, and then to present all her evidence to the UN. Before she can do that, however, she is brutally murdered and her mutilated body found near a lake in a remote part of eastern Kenya. Suspicion initially falls on Bluhm; but when his body is found tortured and hanging in the desert, it is clear they both have been silenced.

“Deniability” at any price

Until the moment he identifies the body of his wife, Justin Quayle, the constant gardener, played by Ralph Fiennes, has tended his plants quietly in the background. But the nature of her relationship with Bluhm, and the contents of the report drive him to uncover the truth. He searches through the remains of his wife's belongings; her computer and files having been stolen, and finds a love letter from his colleague Sandy Woodrow.

A distraught Quayle flies to London to see his high-ranking boss, Sir Bernard Pelligrin, who warns him off from “poking around under rocks … some very nasty things live under rocks, especially in foreign gardens.” Quayle asks him if he has seen Tessa's report on Dypraxa. He lies and says he hasn't, but Kenny Curtiss, Three Bees CEO has.

Over lunch Pellegrin asks Quayle: “ She [Tessa] tell you about the letter, or did you find it among her things? Be grateful to have it back. Written under stress, you understand. Regrettable things said. Wouldn't want it falling into the wrong hands.”

“Sorry, Bernard. Are we talking about the same letter?” asks Quayle.

It transpires that Pelligrin had written a letter to Woodrow after seeing Tessa's report, in which he describes her as “the resident harlot” who must be reigned in. He adds that the fact that Dypraxa causes death must be denied, along with their knowledge of it. Without “ deniability” the lucrative financial axis of KDH, the Three Bees Corporation and Dypraxa would cease, and re-testing the drug would take up too much time and money.

It is this letter that Tessa has stolen from the hapless Woodrow, and with which she has hoped to make the British government stop KDH producing Dypraxa.

Corporate hit squad strikes

Stealing that letter has sealed Tessa's fate. Pellegrin orders a hit on her before she can reveal the truth about Dypraxa and he loses valuable revenue from the arrangement.

As her husband begins to understand Tessa's ploy, the pressure on him to abandon his investigation is increased. He begins to ‘see' her and remember their conversations in a series of flashbacks. Academy Award winner Weisz gives an ethereal performance as the doomed lover who cannot let go of her cause, or of her man.

Like Orpheus drawn to Eurydice, Quayle's love for his wife leaves him no choice. He must return to Africa. By now the Three Bees trials have started to fall apart. Dr Lorbeer has re-located to a UN camp in the Sudan, to seek redemption, and Kenny Curtiss, sensing that his fall is imminent, takes Quayle to the unmarked graves of 63 people whose deaths were unrecorded in the Dypraxa trials in Kenya.

Quayle, in a last heroic act, tracks down Lorbeer, who has Pelligrins letter as a safeguard against his part in Dypraxa. Quayle posts the letter off to his wife's lawyer, and makes his way to the lake where her body was found. The rust and blue of the Kenyan shore line shimmers under flamingo's wings. Tessa ‘sits' next to him as the truck carrying the corporate hit men arrive.

Corruption exposed, but misguided

This film does a good job of exposing corporate corruption and the deadly side of drugs trials. But where the screenwriter Jeffrey Caine, and the author, John le Carre go wrong is in their assumption that HIV drugs such as Nevirapine and AZT that have been tested on pregnant mothers in parts of Africa, and on African and Hispanic kids in US orphanages, are that much less harmful to people than their fictitious TB drug. In fact, the characters that dissent against Dypraxa actively support the use of Nevirapine, and HIV testing for all poor Kenyans.

The big pharmaceutical companies won't lose sleep over such a romantic expose of the drugs industry, as the film fails to address the situation in which real toxic drugs with known life-threatening side effects are being tested without proper informed consent, often on healthy subjects. That is what needs to be exposed.

Africans deserve better

Where this film works is in its colourful cinematic visions of Kenya, the struggles of the people against unimaginable poverty, HIV, and their complicity in drugs trials lest they be excluded from all forms of medical care. This is strikingly contrasted against the lush living conditions of the diplomatic fraternity and foreign investors. And it poignantly portrays the perspective that African lives are somehow cheaper than other lives is a reality that must be challenged.

African people die of diseases caused by inadequate living conditions; and they deserve help based on long-term solutions, not quick and often-inappropriate fixes, to improve their quality of life through access to adequate housing, clean water and good nutrition above all.

No barriers to drugs treatments for African kids

This year, President and Laura Bush have launched an initiative to increase the range of HIV drugs available to treat children with the disease. The President's Emerging Plans for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) enlists the help of the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, to assess the potential of developing a standardised dose range table for HIV positive children. Doses are worked out by weight, so that non-experts can administer drugs, and “remove scientific barriers” to treating infected children. PEPFAR initiatives are targeted at Africa and other poor countries. The corruption continues.

Examining the alternatives

In a new book from ISIS, we have exposed the hazards of AIDS vaccines and other conventional drugs treatments; and examined how many survive HIV infection for more than 10 years without developing AIDS disease.

Unraveling Aids , The Independent Science and Promising Alternative Therapies , written by Mae-Wan Ho, Sam Burcher, Rhea Gala and Veljko Veljkovic, is published by Vital Health Publishing, and available at

The Constant Gardener is a Focus Features film on general release and DVD.

Article first published 25/04/06

Got something to say about this page? Comment

Comment on this article

Comments may be published. All comments are moderated. Name and email details are required.

Email address:
Your comments:
Anti spam question:
How many legs on a spider?