JOHN LE CARRE has been a writer of literate thrillers almost as long as Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles has been alive. He is a master novelist of the traditional school, while Meirelles, witness his Oscar-nominated “City of God,” has a jumpy, edgy, ultramodern filmmaking style. Their methods shouldn’t mix, but in “The Constant Gardener,” assisted by superior acting by Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz and an outstanding supporting cast, they’ve joined forces to create a film that grips us dramatically, intellectually and emotionally.
As it turns out, the novelist (whose work was translated to film by screenwriter Jeffrey Caine) and the director have several things in common, including powerful storytelling gifts and the will to make a difference in the world. For if Le Carre’s concern with the unhealthy influence of multinational corporations makes “Gardner” an unusually meaty thriller, he is matched by Meirelles’ passion for socially committed and intrinsically dramatic filmmaking. Their collaboration results in an intricate yet intimate piece of work that is disturbing for all the right reasons.
In addition to unfolding a mightily affecting love story wrapped in a complex whodunit plot, “The Constant Gardener” poses some stimulating questions. In a world where complicity in chicanery is the rule, what does it take to make a difference, what is the price individuals must pay for their idealism? And where market forces rule with an iron hand, what is the cost to society for being in thrall to unbridled corporate lust for profit?
Like the novel, Meirelles’ film (smartly edited by Claire Simpson, an Oscar winner for “Platoon”) goes back and forth between the present and the past, as Fiennes’ midlevel British diplomat Justin Quayle, characterized by Le Carre as “a Foreign Office plodder,” investigates the suspicious death of his impulsive and unstoppable wife Tessa (Weisz), an activist firebrand who was everything he is not.
Le Carre, no one needs to be told, is completely at home in the world of duplicity, betrayal and behind-the-scenes intrigue, and the film continually benefits from having his densely plotted novel and its textured adult characters as source material.
And because Justin, by virtue of his personality and the complexity of his quest, is initially well over his head in his investigations, his mental state is a good match for the disorienting visual style Meirelles and cinematographer Cesar Charlone create. Using hand-held camerawork to create intimacy, Charlone enables us to connect on a visceral level with Justin’s confusion, his sense that what he needs to know is just out of reach.
The cinematographer, Oscar-nominated for “City of God,” also does a remarkable job capturing the vivid, overcrowded crush of chaotic Africa. “Constant Gardener” was photographed with some difficulty in Kenya, where it takes place, and scenes caught on the fly in Nairobi’s Kibera, a staggering shantytown of 800,000 to 1 million souls, connect us indelibly to this unnerving, unforgettable side of the country.
Though the film starts with his wife’s savage murder, Justin and Tessa’s story begins not in Kenya but in England. They meet cute at his boring London lecture about foreign policy, where she, in an adroit bit of updating, lashes out at him as the representative of a British government that has sent troops to Iraq. She apologizes afterward for being rude, he calls her impassioned, and they fall into bed almost at once.
Justin and Tessa are not the easiest characters to convincingly animate, but the passion and skill Fiennes and Weisz bring to the roles make it happen. Because these two are so finely drawn and so splendidly acted, we never doubt their reality, never doubt the strength of their polar attraction. She feels safe with him, he enjoys being flummoxed by her, and when he tells her he is being posted to the British High Commission in Kenya and she is wild to go along, it feels inevitable that he will agree.
It’s hard to think of an actor other than Ralph Fiennes who could bring Justin’s mixture of timidity and attractiveness so convincingly to life. A career diplomat who goes where he’s told -- “like a Labrador” someone witheringly says -- Fiennes’ Justin not only radiates decency, consideration and unfailing politeness, he makes those qualities sexy. Until he meets Tessa, the only outlet for his considerable energy and passion is meticulous gardening.
Completely inhabited by Weisz, Tessa has the kind of personality that could make even Gregor Mendel forget about his plants. It is perhaps the most fully realized performance of her career. Tessa -- a woman who burns about injustice and believes that the world could be changed if people cared enough -- has no difficulty speaking truth to power and sticking her nose in places, in this case the shenanigans of certain international companies, the establishment wishes she wouldn’t.
(Part of Tessa’s vividness stems from her basis in a real person, Yvette Pierpaoli, a friend of Le Carre’s and an advocate for Refugees International who died in a car accident while doing work in Kosovo. Both the novel and the film are dedicated to her as someone “who lived and died giving a damn,” and Le Carre has written with great feeling that “Tessa’s commitment to the poor of Africa, particularly its women, her contempt for protocol, and her unswerving, often maddening determination to have her way stemmed quite consciously, as far as I was concerned, from Yvette’s example.”)
Justin is understandably shattered by Tessa’s death. More surprisingly, he is radicalized by it. He ignores rumors of infidelity and remains determined, despite pointed warnings that “there are some very nasty things under rocks, especially in foreign gardens,” to find out what she was investigating and why she died.
“The Constant Gardener” concerns itself, more than anything else, with Justin’s finding out, his getting of wisdom. Fiennes has described the film as “a retrospective love affair,” and there is a lot of truth in that. The more Justin learns, the more his sense of loss deepens, and the more terribly moving his search becomes.
Though Fiennes and Weisz carry the lion’s share of the film’s emotional burden, “The Constant Gardener” wouldn’t be a fraction of the film it is without expert supporting work across the board. Especially noteworthy are Bill Nighy as an impeccably bloodless pillar of the establishment, Danny Huston as Justin’s oleaginous boss, Gerard McSorley as a bluff business tycoon and Pete Postlethwaite as the mysterious Lorbeer.
“The Constant Gardener” keeps the book’s somber tone, though it does add on a bit more of an upbeat ending. But let no one doubt the extent of Le Carre’s and Meirelles’ social concern. Practically the last thing viewers see is the novelist’s on-screen fusillade: “Nobody in this story, and no outfit or corporation, thank God, is based upon an actual person or outfit in the real world. But I can tell you this; as my journey ... progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.”
You have been warned.
‘The Constant Gardener’
MPAA rating: R for language, some violent images and sexual content/nudity
Times guidelines: Adult subject matter throughout
Released by Focus Features. Director Fernando Meirelles. Producer Simon Channing Williams. Screenplay Jeffrey Caine, based on the novel by John le Carre. Cinematographer Cesar Charlone. Editor Claire Simpson. Costumes Odile Dicks Mireaux. Music Alberto Iglesias. Production design Mark Tildesley. Art director Denis Schnegg. Set decorator Michele Day. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
In general release.