Credit: Focus Features/courtesy Everett Collection

Ralph Fiennes’ pale, wounded gaze and tight smile often lead him to play men who are pained, unsettled — he won a Tony award for his performance as Hamlet, Prince of Agita, and even his Nazi in Schindler’s List had Issues. But it’s not just his physiognomy that marks him. Fiennes’ distracted, inward-turning manner projects an ambivalence about the whole business of acting, or at least of stardom, and that itchiness conveys itself to his audience, making us more apt to speak of his work with admiration and respect than with love.

Justin Quayle, the amateur plant-fancier who takes the title in The Constant Gardener, is another hooded Fiennes fellow, a man more at ease with greenhouse cuttings than with the cocktail chatter that goes along with the post of a midlevel career diplomat stationed in Kenya. But such is the clarity and passionate intelligence of Fernando Meirelles’ adaptation of John le Carré’s urgent 2001 novel, about deadly pharmaceutical arrogance in Africa, that Fiennes blooms in his most empathetic, extroverted, and lovable work in years.

As in any le Carré creation, the players in this one are morally inconstant people who keep secrets and betray those closest to them. When, at the beginning of the saga, Justin’s wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), is reported gruesomely murdered on an isolated stretch of country (she had been accompanied by a local doctor working to contain tuberculosis and AIDS, and the black-and-white pair had been rumored to be lovers), Justin himself really doesn’t know what Tessa did with her days as a human rights ”activist.” All he knows is that he adored her for her fire and for her commitment to fight, while he, a le Carré chap, after all, equivocated. (Weisz makes it easy to believe Tessa’s fearlessness; she’s as mobile, open-faced, and sexually alive as Fiennes is shuttered, and the two make a potent couple, even if the casting closes the generation gap that figures in the book.)

Tessa’s death opens The Constant Gardener. Why she died (with damning information about multinational drug malfeasance in her possession) propels the plot, as Justin awakens from his complacency to understand the posthumous truth about her real work, and, poignantly, about their own marriage. Meirelles, meanwhile, brightens the author’s wide, dark field with rich color, adding his own distinctive cinematic feel for the desperation, as well as the vibrancy, of the global underclass. Maturing the grabby style of hip-hoppy energy and visual fillips he brought to City of God (where he featured Rio de Janeiro as something between a circle of hell and a really cool setting for a music video), the Oscar-nominated Brazilian filmmaker shoots the landscape of Kenya, slums and magnificent wild territory, children and birds, with a new flow.

There’s less superfluous ”art” now, more concentration of purpose from frequent collaborator César Charlone’s voluptuous cinematography. Now the shots don’t waste time saying, Look at me; instead they urge, Look, look at what is really happening to millions of Africans as disease ruthlessly spreads, fertilized by a toxic mixture of corporate and governmental dither and greed. Working from an unobtrusive screenplay by British TV scripter Jeffrey Caine, Meirelles makes his points convincingly, teasing out the secrets of weak and bullying men (among the limpest of whom are Justin’s unreliable friend and diplomatic colleague, played by Danny Huston, and their frighteningly Perfect British Boss, played with high gloss by Bill Nighy), but never squanders attention away from the tragedy of epidemic disease and corruption. (Playing the opposite of limp, the ever-excellent Gerard McSorley from Bloody Sunday embodies a paragon of corporate thuggishness who’s never more terrifying than when he’s on the golf course.)

There is, I realize, always the chance that such a serious, it’s-good-for-you description makes The Constant Gardener sound like a lemonade glass of medicine. It’s not. The movie is smart, serious, and adult about something that matters, but not at the expense of a kind of awful, sensual revelry as le Carré’s capacious plot hurtles to its big finish. In flashback scenes of Justin and Tessa’s life together, the chemistry between Fiennes and Weisz (previously paired in the tortured István Szabó film Sunshine) feels playfully sexy, which is not something I’d usually ascribe to Fiennes’ default stance of proud hurt. Borne on lilting snatches of African song, The Constant Gardener gives a damn while giving good ”entertainment.” P.S.: ”By comparison with the reality,” le Carré explains in notes on the film, ”my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.” A-

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Rachel Weisz); Best Adapted Screenplay (Jeffrey Caine); Best Film Editing; Best Original Score (Alberto Iglesias)

The Constant Gardener
  • Movie
  • 128 minutes