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Gripping ‘Constant Gardener’ tells bitter story

Fiennes, Huston and Weisz turn in excellent performances in this thriller

Based on John le Carre’s best-seller, “The Constant Gardener” is about as bitter and despairing as mainstream contemporary movies ever get. That’s entirely in keeping with the mood of the book, which quickly establishes a scathing attitude toward greedy governments and corporations and the impact of pharmaceutical companies on disease-ravaged Africa.

“The cold war provided the perfect excuse for Western governments to plunder and exploit the Third World in the name of freedom,” wrote le Carre in a piece prepared for The Nation in early 2001, when the book was published. The movie updates this viewpoint by throwing in quite a bit of skeptical post-9/11 commentary, including a spirited condemnation of the invasion of Iraq.

The speech is delivered in a character-establishing flashback by Tessa (Rachel Weisz), an outspoken activist who calls Iraq “Vietnam, The Sequel.”  The opening scenes establish that she’s been mysteriously murdered in Northern Kenya, and that her marriage to an ineffectual British diplomat named Justin (Ralph Fiennes) may have had something to do with it.

Justin sets out to discover who did it and why, and quickly finds himself going further than he intended. Thanks to a series of run-ins with fellow diplomats (Danny Huston, Bill Nighy) who have little respect for the truth, he becomes as radicalized as his late wife. At first he suspects her of infidelity, but the truth turns out to be less banal and far more tragic.

The Brazilian filmmaker, Fernando Meirelles, who earned a surprise Oscar nomination for directing the street-gang drama, “City of God,” brings an immediacy to the material that sometimes comes off as overdone (especially the use of a handheld camera) but mostly seems exactly right. He’s also very good with the actors.

Weisz gives her most vibrant performance to date as a woman for whom politics is always personal. Without her passion, the story wouldn’t work. Justin has to believe in her, even when she’s making his professional life difficult, and she has to believe in Justin, even when he seems to be setting limits on what she can do.

Fiennes and Huston have rarely been better. Especially delicate is the scene in which Huston’s character tells Justin that Tessa is probably dead. Clearly they both love her and can’t come to grips with her permanent absence; they’re also consumed with an attempt not to let their feelings become too obvious. Equally fine, in a very different way, is a restaurant scene in which Nighy’s character lets Justin know more than he should.

The screenwriter, Jeffrey Caine (“Rory O’Shea Was Here”), deserves special mention for his ability to streamline a plotty 500-page novel and avoid preachiness. Le Carre clearly is horrified by what is happening to Africa in the early 21st century, but his message is always presented via a series of well-drawn characters with agendas that vary widely. The biggest surprise is saved for the end, when one seemingly minor character takes the stage and puts everything into perspective.