City Of God is a masterpiece. Window into another (third) world, speaking out for an underclass and a culture previously unseen, it remains a work of gut-clenching power. But the question-mark over Fernando Meirelles is whether its success was down to his storytelling nous or the vitality of the environment he uncovered. Can he create, or just show? Is he just another Mathieu Kassovitz, whose rage-fuelled exploration of Parisian pondlife, La Haine, raised hopes for a career currently mired in mediocrity (Gothika, anyone)?
Well, no. With The Constant Gardener, Meirelles proves himself a fresh, new, determined talent: a director with versatility, a distinct voice and plenty of heart to match his piercing eye. Also, unusually for a modern filmmaker, he appears untouched by irony. He has none of Soderbergh's detachment or Fincher's cruel grace and while his adaptation of John Le Carré's furious novel may not match their best work, it's steeped in a quality they rarely exhibit: humanity.
At its centre, although she's often off-screen, is Rachel Weisz as Tessa: a firebrand activist who first encounters Ralph Fiennes' buttoned-down civil servant by shouting at him during a speech ("Explain to us why we're killing thousands of people for barrels of oil and a photo opportunity on the White House lawn!"). Passionate both on the soapbox and in the sack, she "feels safe" with her apparent opposite and railroads him into marriage and life at the embassy in Kenya, where her devil-may-care manner upsets big pharmaceutical business and brings her close - too close for Justin's comfort - to a local doctor. Right from the opening kicker - when her corpse is found on a parched lake - neither we nor Justin are sure if she's hero or harpy.
For sure, though, is that Weisz is brilliant: a vibrant blend of earthy character acting and natural, love-me star charisma. And as the truth trickles out over (a generous) two hours, she shares a delicate chemistry with Fiennes' diffident gentleman. He's the shy English suit he seems born to play, but skilfully sheds his natural reserve to make Justin, if not lovable, then likeable, pitiable and finally someone to admire. He's ably supported by Bill Nighy's precise depiction of everyday evil and Danny Huston's layered turn as his lustful friend (in the 'seduction' scene he grasps the same black presence as his father did with Chinatown; frighteningly good).
But there's more to the film than pure performance. It's a smart blend of love story and political thriller, style and earnest subject matter. But it's the depth of reality Meirelles draws from his actors that makes the movie. Sure, you'll see tighter, sharper thrillers, but rarely anything as unaffected, real and aware of the ultimate price of love.