Ralph Fiennes' aristocratic gait makes him seem remote and inaccessible from a distance, but looking closer, he's a remarkably expressive actor, capable of revealing emotional depths through a quiver in his voice or a slight crack in his visage. In other words, he's the perfect John Le Carré hero: reserved and sophisticated, possessing the driest of wits, yet deceptively passionate in a way that people never really anticipate from him. The Cold War spy games in Le Carré's previous novels were put to bed in 2000's The Constant Gardener, in which Le Carré opened up to corporate imperialism at its most diabolical, his moral indignation lighting a memorable fire. In the crisp screen adaptation, Fiennes carries Le Carré's spirit with a slow-burning performance that operates on two fronts: As a powerful indictment of third-world abuses by pharmaceutical companies, and as a widower's moving investigation into his shattered relationship.
When his activist wife Rachel Weisz is found brutally murdered in remote northern Kenya, Fiennes initially swallows the official line that she was killed in a crime of passion by a doctor whom Fiennes had long suspected was her lover. After all, theirs seemed to be a marriage of convenience: As a mid-level bureaucrat for the British High Commission, Fiennes had diplomatic privileges that let Weisz pursue her real passion, which was to help the African poor. In spite of his mild temperament, Fiennes doggedly pursues the truth behind the killing, and he soon uncovers a scheme involving a pharmaceutical company that's testing a radical experimental drug on Africans in line for other free treatments. The conspirators are counting on Fiennes to quietly accept the result of his wife's rumored infidelities, but the events stir a resolve within him that's completely unexpected.
Past Le Carré adaptations have been insular, like some dry Agatha Christie chamber piece, but City Of God director Fernando Meirelles captures the African slums with a stinging realism that goes beyond buttoned-down intrigue. At the same time, he populates the movie with perfectly cast Le Carré villains like Danny Huston and Bill Nighy, men who seem so refined and witty that it's hard to picture the black moral rot that's emptied out their consciences. But The Constant Gardener belongs to Fiennes, whose mourning process is also a process of discovery, as he finally and touchingly gets to know the woman he married. His gradual awakening ignites the film with an urgency that's both political and personal, and gives it a relevance that transcends fiction.