By the time we meet Tessa (Rachel Weisz, “Constantine”), we already know she’s dead; not that she has a week to live or that some guy on the back patio is going chase her up a winding staircase and throw her over the edge. She was killed along with an African doctor in Kenya on the day before they were to expose a lucrative conspiracy rooted in the local medical practices. Left behind is her doting husband, Justin (Ralph Fiennes, “Red Dragon”), who was unaware of her plan. So goes the premise of “The Constant Gardener,” Fernando Meirelles’s (“City of God”) stunning second film, adapted from the John Le Carré bestseller. As with most great thrillers, this is a movie all about context. It works on one level as a fragmented political potboiler about a man’s search for the truth behind his wife’s death, but because it is the second feature directed by Brazilian virtuoso Meirelles, we know that there is more than meets the eye.As the movie unfolds in a nonlinear fashion, we learn the back story. Justin, a diplomat whose earnest demeanor is the self-professed reason he has not “risen very high” in his profession, marries Tessa, a fervent young activist who persuades him to take her along on his professional visits to Kenya. Within a year, Justin’s wife is dead, but somewhere in between she has stumbled onto a startling secret involving a pharmaceutical giant and African patients. Devastated, Justin becomes obsessed with the details surrounding her death. His journey, the film’s masterfully restrained second act, is considerable but not sweeping. There are surprises and unexpected revelations, but they remain grounded and resist the temptation to bombard us with sensationalized subplots.But like “City of God,” a sprawling, patient story of gang warfare in a Brazilian slum, Meirelles is less interested in the thriller itself than with its narrative possibilities. Here he uses the basic story as the lens through which he views developing nations in Africa, photographed eagerly and vividly by César Charlone, and seeks not to indict Western indifference but perhaps to unmask it. That the corporate conspiracy is so plausible is key — where Sydney Pollack’s “The Interpreter” and the forthcoming biopic “Lord of War” use Africa as a remote narrative backdrop, Meirelles makes it not only the arena but also the thematic backbone of his film.
All the while, he never neglects the story’s roots. Observe the climax, in which Meirelles takes a familiar scene of obligatory but necessary closure and presents it before the film reveals what actually happens. It’s rare for a filmmaker to have both an uncompromising vision and a deep respect for his audience, but that’s exactly what Meirelles achieves. His film is a rarity, too — it reveals its full scope only after it’s over, impressing itself in our minds, perhaps haunting them forever.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars