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'Gardener' settles for familiar ground

Who do you mourn for most in ''The Constant Gardener"? Author John le Carre, whose richly intelligent thrillers have become more moralistic and less nuanced as the Cold War fades into history? Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, who here gets his tepid big-budget reward for making the astonishing ''City of God" in 2002? Or is it the topic of big corporations arrogantly using Africa as their test lab that's most poorly served by this movie?

Wilted bouquets all around: ''The Constant Gardener" is a predictable conspiracy thriller that somehow ends up diminishing the real urgency of the West's humanitarian disconnect from Africa. If it sends audiences home to log on to the Amnesty International website, terrific -- but that still doesn't make it a very good movie.

Some will think so nevertheless, seduced by the antic post-''Bourne Identity" camerawork, by the seriousness of the film's concerns, and by Ralph Fiennes's exquisitely understated performance in the title role. He plays Justin Quayle, a midlevel British career diplomat who has a way with houseplants and a lifelong inability to offend anyone. When his friend and boss Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston) breaks the news that Justin's wife has died in mysterious circumstances, it's the widower who ends up consoling his consoler.

Sandy and Justin are the British Embassy's men in Kenya, but it's a woman -- Justin's late wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz) -- who has caused all the bees to swarm out of their hives. ''The Constant Gardener" opens with Tessa's (offscreen) murder by the side of a remote African lake and then moves backward in time, detailing the couple's courtship and Tessa's uncovering of a plot by a shadowy pharmaceutical company to use impoverished Africans as guinea pigs. ''We're not killing people who wouldn't be dead anyway," rationalizes one of the players with a shrug.

''This is how the world [expletive] Africa," says another character, a cynical truism screenwriter/adapter Jeffrey Caine wants to stick in the complacent throats of Western audiences. The message might be heard more clearly if it weren't sugarcoated with cliched derring-do. As Justin retraces his dead wife's steps, he comes up against threatening notes, ominous black BMWs, not one but two incriminating letters, and the sort of miraculous computer hackery that suggests screenwriters might find a profitable sideline as IT consultants.

There's also a thuggish corporate head (Gerald McSorley) and a Machiavellian dandy of a British lord (Bill Nighy), both characters written and played with the complexity that is a le Carre hallmark. And, yes, there are a few Africans such as Tessa's doctor friend (Herbert Kounde), but ''Gardener" is one of those well-intentioned tales that largely denies its victims the dignity of a role in their own saving. White folks made this mess, the film implies, and white folks can clean it up.

So the movie puts all its chips on Tessa as a ferociously committed idealist whose zeal leads her into questionable moral choices that threaten her marriage. There are two problems here. First, you have to twist your suspension of disbelief into a knot of yogic contortion to accept that Justin and Tessa are a believable couple (''You're quite scary," he tells her at their first meeting, and he's right).

Second, there are those of us who find Weisz one of the most irritating actresses currently working, a performer who emits the strident self-righteousness of the roles she habitually plays. Loving protestations to the contrary, Tessa treats her milquetoast husband as a patsy, and while that's an interesting movie, it's not the one intended.

But maybe that's just me. Luckily, Weisz is offscreen much of the time, leaving us to contemplate Fiennes as he carefully prunes the weeds out of Justin's personality. The character emerges a stronger if more endangered species, especially after he returns to Europe for a final connecting of the dots: A scene in which he revisits the London apartment where he and Tessa first lived and quietly weeps for all he has lost is the most emotionally true moment in the entire film. The reticent hero moved to action by love is a device le Carre borrowed from Graham Greene, and it's a deeply British concept Fiennes seems to understand in his bones: When everybody's shouting, it's best to watch the quiet ones. In this movie, sadly, the plot shouts louder.

Meirelles is working again with his ''City of God" cinematographer Cesar Charlone, and ''The Constant Gardener" is a visual feast of off-kilter angles, saturated film stocks, and shifting focal planes. None of this particularly strengthens or detracts from the movie, but you could argue that it's merely another form of shouting. Is it possible, in the end, to get American and European mass audiences to care about Africa without resorting to tired huggermugger? Would a straight-up drama reach the most people? Would a factual documentary go unseen? Or should Hollywood just pull out the stops, send Tom Cruise to Niger with the ''Mission: Impossible" team and a fistful of McDonald's vouchers, and get it all on ''Oprah"? It's a knotty question, and ''The Constant Gardener" never addresses it.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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