Rachel Weisz as Tessa Quayle in The Constant Gardener
Best Supporting Actress at the 78th Annual Oscars (2005)
“Sorry, I've just got one question: Whose map is Britain using when it completely ignores the United Nations and decides to invade Iraq?”
When Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz) is murdered, her husband Justin (Ralph Fiennes), a mild-mannered diplomat who constantly gardens has to put down his trowel so he can track down her killers.
In the first few minutes of The Constant Gardener, Tessa Quayle is murdered, a crime that motivates the action and emotional stakes of the rest of the film. But we become acquainted with Tessa through flashbacks, and learn that she’s an impassioned activist who fights for justice. And I mean fights: Tessa has no fear about confronting a government official at a chill party, or bellowing about the unfairness of oil wars while everyone arounds her groans. Her husband, Justin, describes her as a “terrier when she had a scent,” someone who would stop at nothing to get the bottom of corruption. And when she gets wind of some shady drug trials, she’s on the case, even though it ends with her death.
Tessa is presented to us as a hero, but I have a few issues with her that the movie doesn’t recognize. First, she’s almost manic when she gets hold of a cause, even at the expense of herself and those around her. She almost blows up her marriage because of the intensity with which she investigates, and seems to believe that the ends justify the means. More concerning is the fact that she’s barged in, a white lady in Africa, convinced that she can help, and it’s not clear that she really can. We have no information about her background, or why she’s qualified to, ya know, evaluate medical care in this particular context, but she’s got her cause and she’s passionate about it, dammit. I view Tessa with affection, but also a lot of skepticism.
I really like Rachel Weisz: she has a liveliness that comes through in all of her characters. It’s especially necessary here, as she’s very much the beating heart of the film. Broadly, she’s in the “dead wife” category, but I don’t find her to be a plot device because of her energy: we spend a lot of time with bureaucrats and businessmen in the film, and in the midst of drudgery, Weisz crackles. I also really like her as a pairing for Ralph Fiennes’s Justin, as her forcefulness contrasts nicely with his meek attitude, while she still conveys the chemistry that they have.
The other aspect of Weisz’s performance that I like is that, in the early stages of the film, her motivations are meant to be a bit mysterious. Weisz has to convey her clear emotions, without letting too much slip, and she achieves that balance nicely. We understand what she’s all about, but she never explains everything. I should also mention that Tessa is supposed to be twenty-four in this film, which is laughable, but otherwise, great casting.
I would first love to let the filmmakers know that Africa is a whole-ass continent, not a specific location, because oh my God, characters are constantly talking about going to Africa, the situation in Africa, etc. It’s a very Westernized view that sees Africa as an AIDS-ridden monolith, and it’s gross. In general, this movie reminded me of Michael Clayton, a mid-2000s thriller that’s trying to be deeper than a classic spy movie, and ends up landing in a space where it’s both too complicated, and too straightforward all at once. There are a lot of plot machinations to convince us that Big Pharma is up to no good, and maybe that was a novel message at the time, but at this point, we’re all on board. I also have to give a dishonorable mention to the cinematography, which is choppy, and overly saturated, and genuinely looks like it was shot on a cheap Kodak camera.
Was the Oscar deserved?
Yes, it’s not my favorite Rachel Weisz performance, but it’s still well-earned.