There is an old adage about not asking a question when you are not prepared for the answer; we might add that certain questions are asked in such a way as to avoid all detriment. How does the other half (or, better said, the other eighty-five percent) live is one such question that we dare not answer because our privileged existence does not welcome guilt and shame. We have everything at our disposal, but how we reached that point is brushed aside in favor of results. The results, I must say, are quite good. We can stroll into any pharmacy or supermarket and acquire whatever gel, ointment or pill needed to alleviate our aches and groans. Doctors are reachable by phone and expensive, so they have no problem checking out our smallest complaints. Although often tedious and understaffed, hospitals are accessible at all hours and, for the insured, with every amenity. Bewailing the American health care system is one of liberals' hobby-horses, and rightfully so, but there are alternatives that we dare not ask about. Which brings us to the subject of this magnificent film.
Our hero is Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) a young and idealistic British diplomat who inherited a love of Africa from some branch of his family and perhaps, like many adventurous souls, from books. He is what every diplomat ought to be: forthright, modest, understanding, tolerant and hopelessly optimistic. We first see him hemming and hawing in front of a group of rabid journalists who interpret his last-minute standing in for a senior official as an admission of a mistake. One journalist, Tessa (Oscar winner Rachel Weisz) criticizes him so brutally (and is rebuked with no kind force) that we quickly perceive what will happen between these two attractive people and what ties will bind them for the duration of their earthly existence. To be fair, the film employs a shuffled chronology of events to instill suspense, and to be unfair, there is little mystery in what occurs. The only question is why. Why, we hear Justin stuttering, can he not think about anything except Tessa and why did he let himself seduce her, or whatever exactly occurred? Why did he bring her along to Kenya, a nice place by all accounts, but an unstable land perhaps better suited for single persons without strong family ties? Why is Tessa constantly in the company of Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), a young, dynamic and attractive Belgian physician, even late at night? And why is Tessa racing around helping as many people as she can while eight months pregnant? Yet the most horrific why involves what happens to Tessa and Arnold one afternoon on the way from Nairobi northbound through the desert to report on widespread pharmaceutical corruption and malpractice, a poorly chosen trip through a minefield of mercenaries; thankfully, our only description of those events is verbal.
The film is based on a book by this renowned spy novelist, himself a former diplomat, and isn't the stuff we would usually associate with his name. How much truth lies therein depends on the news that you follow and what credence you lend to conspiracies in general, a tendency that in some cultures (usually the less privileged) is rather prevalent. More important than that for our purposes, however, is Justin's hobby, which begets the name and motif of the work. His gardens are always delightful spectacles, as he is himself amidst them, and the only place he feels totally secure. We are duly aware of the meticulousness with which he maintains his flora as being the perfect metaphor for his own myopia, the order that needn’t be in place of the order that he cannot bring himself to support. Fiennes has a sort of moribund and tepid flair that collates perfectly with Justin’s passive personality: the young diplomat is not a pushover, but he is rarely assertive; he may show flashes of anger or indignation, but that simply suggests a lack of imagination or maturity. In other words, he believes in his world, in the good of man, in the future of Africa because not believing in all those things means childhood’s end and a new frontier of responsibilities that scare him half to Hades. But he is a good man, a man committed to his wife, his country and his ideals. He knows that a litany of small favors do make in the end as much of a difference as a big check (consider his change of heart on giving rides to some of the natives who have walked up to twenty miles to obtain vaccinations or medicine or attend a funeral; then think of Quayle the coward who hides as his wife does all the talking and acting for him). How appropriate then that Justin, who loves the verdure and lushness of a British flowerbed, should wake up in the film’s final scene in a desert with nothing about except rock and sun. And sky as well, because flowers need fresh air just as much as we do. The only difference being that they breathe out what we breathe in.