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THE CONSTANT GARDENER **1/2

CAST: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite, Richard McCabe, Donald Sumpter, Juliet Aubrey, Hubert Koounde, Archie Panjabi, Gerard McSorley, Samuel Otage, Anneke Kim Sarnau

DIRECTOR: Fernando Meirelles

SCREENWRITER: Jeffrey Caine

 

Justin Quayle is a fastidious, vaguely ambitious British diplomat who quietly tends his career and a tidy assortment of plants in his office and at his modest home in Kenya.

His wife Tessa, however, is anything but quiet as she wages war on poverty, disease and social injustice, never worrying that the blunt criticism she heaps upon people, including her husband’s unscrupulous colleagues, might possibly enrage them, even motivate them to silence her.

But Justin doesn’t seem to notice that Tessa is not everybody’s It Girl; he’s wild about her and simply continues to beam as she prods and cross-examines guests at diplomatic affairs, virtually branding them as colonialist pigs. What’s more, she persists in voicing a belief that greedy pharmaceutical executives, in cahoots with opportunistic Brits, have been using innocent Africans as human guinea pigs.

So, naturally, we’re not too surprised when the vehicle in which Tessa is traveling with an African doctor--rumored to be her lover--is cut off on a country road and she is viciously murdered. Justin, on the other hand, is shocked and deeply grieved. Yet his grief is so gently expressed that it is scarcely observed, if at all, by his scheming associates. Nor can these villains imagine that this meek gardener might blossom into an unmerciful avenger.

Justin is indeed a compellingly unpredictable figure. And the main reason to see this uneven adaptation of John le Carre's best-selling political thriller is the astonishing, richly nuanced performance by Ralph Fiennes as the husband whose love for his wife does not fully mature until after her death. Erase the actor’s miss-mating with Jennifer Lopez in “Maid in Manhattan” from your mind. Fiennes’ emoting here deserves to be ranked alongside his stunning portraits in “Schindler’s List,” “The Quiz Show,” “The English Patient,” “The End of the Affair” and “Spider.”

On the other hand, Fernando Mierelles, auteur of the exciting but excessively hectic “City of God,” does not seem the ideal director for Le Carre’s intricately layered story. His pacing seems even more jagged than in “City of God” and he frequently sacrifices psychological depth for noisy, slam-bang action and flashy imagery. Rarely does he show an object at rest if he can show it in rapid motion. The constant swings between the present and the past don’t help matters, either.

Most rattling of all, though, is Rachel Weisz’s superficial take on the character of Tessa. While it’s true that she manages to convey the fiery tenacity prevalent among so many crusaders, she fails to balance her abrasive sermonizing with a shred of humility or an ounce of humor. You definitely would not want to be seated next to Tessa at a dinner party.

Still, she does laugh on occasion. Actually, she cackles in nearly every flashback during which she is shown in bed with Justin--a strikingly odd response, inasmuch as nothing remotely funny is taking place. Strange. Where is Jennifer Lopez when you really need her?