In a spy movie without a spy, the bravest and most heroic figure is dead after the very first cut. At the beginning of The Constant Gardener (which opens Wednesday, Aug. 31, at the Seven Gables and other theaters), we see her bidding farewell to her husband at the airport, then director Fernando Meirelles jumps us to a wrecked Land Rover spinning its wheels in the cracked red mud of a desolate lake bed. It's in northern Kenya, but the place looks as remote as the moon. The only sign of life is a flock of white birds that takes off, circles, and settles— unperturbed by death, like the rest of Africa. The dead woman—and there's no suspense about her fate—is Tessa (Rachel Weisz), recently married to midlevel diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes). Stationed in Nairobi, he's the polite, decent face of what's left of the British colonial presence in Kenya. To his superiors, however, that country's not a place to be ruled but just another market—populated with guinea pigs, not lions.
It takes a while to arrive at the straightforward economic logic of this elliptically told story, which is based on a big fat John le Carré thriller from 2001. Once a writer of Cold War spy novels, he's been radicalized by globalization and the unipolar West. For him, the lack of a Soviet bloc to oppose hasn't made us any worse or better; it's just allowed us to concentrate more on making money. Tessa is his conscience—and, eventually, Justin's too. A hectoring, in-your-face shouter of the Vanessa Redgrave/Emma Thompson tea-and-Trotsky tradition, she's quite confident she sees things more sensibly than anyone else. Which, conveniently, allows her to behave quite horribly toward both her husband and his colleagues. If she's not lecturing, she's blackmailing. If she's not haranguing, she's offering sexual favors for secret documents. (Weisz strikes just the right balance in making her annoying-slash-lovable.)
Living in a pot, plant-loving Justin knows nothing of this until after her death. Then, as he seeks to discover how and why she died, he comes to believe the worst of her. (Clearing her name is part of solving the mystery of her death.) To his credit as an actor (and his performance is first-rate), Fiennes is under no delusion he's playing a hero. He stumbles around in numb grief, too well-mannered to blubber in public. Visiting the morgue, he has to comfort his boss (Danny Huston) when he pukes at the sight of Tessa (whom he also loved, resulting in an ill-advised letter). When the plot dictates that Justin go underground in Europe to follow Tessa's posthumous clues ("I have to finish what she started!"), it's like The Accidental Spy. He's a man comfortable with fountain pens, not guns.
But Meirelles, Oscar-nominated for City of God, is sensationally comfortable behind the camera. Looping back and forth in time, keeping Tessa a living, vivacious, infuriating character to the very end, he makes le Carré's overstuffed outrage feel a lot more nimble than it is. (See director interview.) Justin stoically slogs from clue to clue, stopping occasionally to take a beating or experience a marital flashback, but Meirelles has an excellent sense of pace between the static and the frenetic. He also foregrounds Nairobi's slums and color, the entire Third World aspect of le Carré's intrigue. Any scene with white men in dark suits talking in a hushed room is guaranteed to be very, very short.
However, just as there's a tension between fuddy-duddy Justin and his firecracker wife, the fit between Meirelles and le Carré isn't friction-free. Working for hire, Meirelles is bound to a book whose plotting is creaky in its Cold War–era knees. (Purloined letters? Epistolary blackmail? Impounded passports?) His fieldwork outshines le Carré's deskwork. This is never more true than with the African locations where Justin goes off the map, including a Sudanese refugee camp attacked by horse-mounted Janjaweed raiders with AK-47s.
This is what the international thriller genre should mean today: muddying your feet on blood-soaked foreign soil, not like The Interpreter, where Africa was brought in a limo to the curb of the Upper East Side. Just as Western corporations are seeking greater profits (and looser regulations) abroad, there are better Hollywood movies to come from venturing outside our borders. Or, as Justin discovers, outside his garden.