Few actors are capable of looking as soulfully famished as Ralph Fiennes. With his liquid, beseeching eyes and fine-drawn features, he resembles an alabaster saint made flesh.
In "The Constant Gardener," directed by Fernando Meirelles and adapted by screenwriter Jeffrey Caine from the John Le Carré bestseller, he plays Justin Quayle, a midlevel career diplomat in the British High Commission whose puttery existence while stationed in Kenya is overthrown when his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) is brutally murdered.
Fiennes is so effetely accomplished a performer that, despite his beauty, he often leaves me cold; he calibrates his emotions to the millimeter. For about the first 15 minutes of "The Constant Gardener" he appears to be up to his old hyper-refined tricks.
But then something molten happens. He has a morgue scene where he is asked to identify Tessa's body. It is a devastating marvel of technique - in a matter of moments his smooth façade withers into an inconsolable sadness. The scene sets up the entire movie, and Fiennes delivers on it.
His modulated performance is balanced by Rachel Weisz's more overtly temperamental one. Tessa is a hothead activist who first meets up with Justin when she shouts down a lecture at which he is halfheartedly intoning in support of the Iraq war. They soon end up in bed (proving once again that politics aren't everything). But Tessa is no empty sloganeer. She risks her marriage and ultimately her life in order to expose the collusion between the High Commission and Big Pharma, which sacrifices impoverished Kenyans as unknowing guinea pigs for a so-called miracle drug not yet approved in the West.
Tessa is operating in a postcolonial arena where wives are still expected to be ornamental. At first Justin is mortified by her lack of decorum, but soon this careful, privileged man develops a grudging respect for her willfulness. She acts out the rebellion that he is too emotionally walled in to express. Tessa explains her attraction to Justin when she says, "I feel safe with you," but safety is actually not a high priority for her. Or for Justin, as it turns out. "The Constant Gardener" is a romance in which the husband does not fall in love with his wife until after she has died, and he is compelled to root out her killers across two continents. He puts himself in harm's way almost as if he were sacrificing himself up to Tessa's memory. He wants to consecrate her valor.
I disliked "City of God," the previous film by director Fernando Mereilles, because it converted the misery of the Brazilian slums into a cinematic assault. Hyperkinetic as a rock video, the movie was just about as deep.
The Le Carré material has toned down his flash, although the film's hectic, nonlinear structure, fractured by flashbacks, is often annoyingly disruptive. Mereilles is trying to craft a love story crossed with international intrigue and he doesn't quite have the emotional amplitude to pull it off. In particular, many of the scenes of political corruption, featuring reptilian tycoons uncoiling in the shadows, are overly familiar - although excellent actors like Bill Nighy, Gerard McSorley, and Danny Huston try to unfamiliarize us.
"The Constant Gardener" is essentially two movies for the price of one. But those halves add up to more than most movies right now. And in those moments when it all comes together - like that morgue scene, or a hospital sequence where Tessa looks on in horror at an African woman hurt by the "miracle" drug - the film rises to a pitch of terror and outrage that leaves one shaken. Grade: A-
• Rated R for language, some violent images, and sexual content/nudity.