Screens The root of some evil

The Constant Gardener, based on a Le Carré novel, is a thrilling ride to the bottom of post-Cold War greed and corruption

Fernando Meirelles' first film to receive American exposure, the stunning City of God, showed poverty from the inside by following multiple generations of the children from a Rio de Janeiro slum. For his English-language debut, a well-funded adaptation of a John Le Carré novel, he views another desperately impoverished region from the outside in - through the eyes of a pair of British lovers who move to Kenya, one (Ralph Fiennes' Justin) to work in diplomatic channels and one (Rachel Weisz' Tessa) for a more hands-on, under-the-radar approach to Western aid. Guess which one gets killed?

Ralph Fiennes plays Justin, a diplomat trying to solve his wife's murder in Africa in The Constant Gardener, based on John Le Carré's post-Cold War novel.

The picture opens with Tessa's murder, and it doesn't take long for grief-stricken Justin to understand that she was eliminated by people who feared she knew too much. Unfortunately, Justin has no idea what she knew. As we learn through lyrical flashback passages, the husband and wife "met cute" in a way that set the mold for their relationship: He was giving a stiff lecture to a conference full of government types when she burst out with a deflating bout of questions about England's support of America's war. We eventually learn that their romance progressed with an understanding: Tessa would continue her muckraking and activism out of the sight of Justin, whose job requires decorum. Finding his wife's killers, then, means that Justin must become a detective investigating a woman he in some ways barely knew.

As he digs, the movie pulls off a beautiful feat. It tells a compelling love story in the middle of what might simply have been a tidy little political thriller. Grief and doubt hover over the couple's relationship - we learn that Tessa shared a hotel room with another man the night before she died, and we're given periodic hints of her infidelity or dissatisfaction with married life - but that does little to negate the film's romance.

At the same time, Justin's detective story is thoroughly involving, leading him from slums to desert to posh private clubs. On personal leave from his diplomatic post, he becomes a surrogate for his wife, unearthing her clues and making her powerful enemies. It's clear early on who most of the bad guys are, but seeing Fiennes piece it all together is enough to hang a movie on.

The Constant Gardener

Dir. Fernando Meirelles; writ. John Le Carré (novel), Jeffrey Caine; feat. Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Daniele Harford, Gerard McSorley, Jason Thornton (R)

Meirelles' skill as a filmmaker is unmistakable. With cinematographer César Charlone and editor Claire Simpson, he crafts a look to match the story's exotic setting and makes the action move with a human pulse. He's also skilled enough with actors to get Danny Huston (auteur John Huston's son, who has been unnervingly awkward in films such as John Sayles' Silver City) to be convincing as Justin's colleague.

The director's biggest feat, perhaps, is to make a film about multinational intrigue in which the issues motivating the plot - poverty, greed, exploitation - are handled with an undeniable earnestness that never becomes preachy. The Constant Gardener is rich enough to reward multiple viewings, but fans of thoughtful film are going to be eager for more from Meirelles.

By John DeFore

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