I've seen the Constant Gardener referred to as a "spy film," which is probably just a reaction to the fact that the movie is based upon a novel by John Le Carre. Given the modern associations to the concept of espionage--associations molded a score of James Bond films and their knockoffs--nothing could be farther from the truth.
Indeed, Constant Gardener's protagonist, Justin Quayle, would be too embarassed to order a martini "shaken, not stirred." He's not the type to shake anything up--a middle-management British diplomat perfectly content to mouth the party line, even if it's with a decided lack of enthusiasm. One day, while he's doing exactly that as a substitute lecturer, he comes under attack by Tess (the absurdly hot Rachel Weisz) , an activist who has all the passion Justin lacks, and then some. After meeting extremely un-cute, the two improbably wind up in the sack, and shortly after that, when Justin's work takes him to Kenya, the two wind up improbably married.
If you're wondering where the intrigue comes in, I should mention that the movie begins with the news of Tess's murder, and from there the story of Tess and Justin's relationship unfolds, in flashback. The mystery is, naturally, why is Tess dead? And each clue only adds to the mystery: Why was Tess inseparable from the Kenyan doctor she was traveling with just before her death? Why was that pharmaceutical company testing HIV-positive Africans for tuberculosis? Why was Tess constantly flirting with Justin's boss, Sandy? Why, exactly, did a wild flower like Tess marry a boring bloke like Justin?
Ralph Fiennes does an amazing job as Justin, one of the best performances of the year. It's one of those performances that is so subtle and well-contained that it's doubtful that Oscar voters will remember it once the "quality movies" season opens in November--there's simply no flash there. However, the whole story hangs on the audience sympathizing with Justin--and Fiennes does a great job of making Justin vulnerable and somewhat clueless rather than callous and petty. Here, Justin has to be suspicious and naive at the same time, all without looking like a loser. Fiennes does the trick.
Another prime asset in this film is Fernando Mereilles, whose direction I liked so much in City of God. I've criticized films about white people and Africa in the past, and it would be easy for this film to fall into the type of condescension that makes some films so annoying. So often, the mandatory "everyday life" shots that directors use to establish their location feel like walking through a photo gallery, as the director and cinematorapher try to capture "the essence of Africa" for the audience.
Mereilles, much as he did in the favellas of Brazil in City of God, has his camera mixing it up with the natives, running with them and around them, in a rather unsentimental fashion. In one throwaway scene, the camera follows some Kenyan children as they set up an impromptu road block to stop Justin's car, and shake him down for some money.
There's no judgment made, by the director, or by Justin when he haggles with the kids to let him pass.
Highly recommended, particularly in this brain-dead summer of major motion pictures.