The Constant Gardener

There is a sense of urgency in “The Constant Gardener,” the feeling that a lot is happening that must be discovered and dealt with immediately. It’s a thriller — political, criminal and marital — but it’s laden not so much with surprises as with realizations, both for the characters and for the audience.

It’s the first film by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles since his deservedly praised “City of God” three years ago, and his first-ever film in English. Based on a John Le Carre novel and adapted by Jeffrey Caine (“GoldenEye”), “The Constant Gardener” can boast of prime cinematography by Cesar Charlone (Meirelles’ regular), an engaging and multi-layered storyline, and a handsome, controlled performance by Ralph Fiennes.

Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a British diplomat who helps oversee Her Majesty’s humanitarian efforts in Africa. He is, to paraphrase W.S. Gilbert, the very model of a modern British diplomat, unflappable and polite, with a ready smile and friendly manners. He is in many ways the opposite of his fiery new wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz), a liberal do-gooder who first catches his attention when she shouts him down after he gives an overly tactful speech.

With her friend Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde), she spends much of her time in Kenya, crusading against uncaring pharmaceutical companies and, to paraphrase Cake, using a machete to cut through red tape. She cares deeply about the suffering people of Kenya. She sees them not as an underprivileged group but as a collection of underprivileged individual human beings. When she wants to give three villagers a ride back to their homes, Justin reminds her that it’s impossible to help everyone. “Yes, but here are three that we CAN help!” she cries. But Justin doesn’t stop the car.

Then Tessa is killed and Arnold is nowhere to be found. We learn this early in the film because so much of the story is revealed out of sequence. The murder appears to have been the work of looters or bandits, but then evidence emerges that suggests it was more personal than that. Justin is left to learn what his wife was doing, to unmask her killers, and to finish her mission himself.

These are tall orders for a grieving widower, and he is not helped much by his friends. His pal Sandy (Danny Huston), a fellow diplomat, may have been sleeping with Tessa. Justin had reason to believe, even before her death, that she was having an affair with Arnold, too. Furthermore, Tessa had irritated a lot of British diplomats with her questions about what the drug companies were doing during their supposedly selfless attempts to bring medical treatment to the Kenyans.

We don’t learn anything before Justin does, which means we see it all through Ralph Fiennes’ performance, which is wonderfully reserved with emotion bubbling just beneath the surface. Justin overhears something that seems to imply one thing, only to learn later that it meant something else. Another point of information that he (and we) had assumed as fact is revealed to be false. And on and on. We get the impression he had not known Tessa very long before she died, maybe a few years. He still had a lot to learn about her, a fact she recognizes when, in flashback, she first asks to accompany him to Africa. “You can learn me,” she says. Sadly, he never truly does until she is gone.

B+ (2 hrs.; R, scattered harsh profanity, a little violence, a little sexuality and some brief nudity.)