Academy Award nominee Fernando Meirelles (City of God) crosses over from low-level crime and pervasive poverty and violence in Brazil to high-level crime, civil strife and even more pervasive poverty with The Constant Gardener, adapted from the 2000 John le Carré novel. Elaborate, cynical, ambitious, eager, visually arresting, the film wants it all and gives plenty. It's quality all around, but may be overkill for some audiences. The discriminating among filmgoers, including loyal pre-DVD first adopters of big-screen presentations, won't be disappointed.

Beginning as a romance and returning to that theme, the film tells the story of career British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), the eponymous gardener, who has his head in the sand, in the soil really, about the corruption around him. In this case, the wrongdoing has corporations and government colluding in the exploitation of the African poor, who serve as unwitting guinea pigs for experimental drugs.

The Constant Gardener is entangled with many story threads that have the narrative jumping continents and time by way of flashbacks. Except for one short scene, we understand little of the blindsided gardener. Early on, Justin emerges as a cog in the cushy British diplomatic corps. In London, he delivers a bland lecture that is challenged by activist Tessa (Rachel Weisz), furious at the impotence of the U.N. and Justin's apparent indifference. Confrontational issues aside, their chemistry ignites and soon Tessa is Justin's wife, accompanying him on a seemingly benign assignment to Kenya.

Tessa befriends Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde), an African doctor who shares her political concerns and awareness that the big pharmaceuticals serving Africans may have ulterior motives and questionable methods. They are also activists catapulted upon a mission that results in a double murder.

Justin is clueless about what Arnold and his wife have been up to, even to the point of suspecting a clandestine affair between the two. Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston), his diplomatic colleague and good friend in Kenya, turns out to be a dodgy fellow with the hots for Tessa. No better are Sir Bernard Pellegrin (Bill Nighy), the silky, aristocratic Brit politico who will get his due big-time, and greedy drug company mogul Sir Kenneth Curtiss (Gerald McSorley), a fast talker whose sales prowess must have sped him up the corporate ladder.

Justin follows clues to Tessa and Arnold's murders to Germany, where he meets Birgit (Anneke Kim Sarnau), an anti-pharmaceutical activist who corresponded with Tessa. Back in London, he reconnects with Arthur Hammond (Richard McCabe), Tessa's cousin, who provides further enlightenment about drug company chicanery.

Far into his journey, Justin tracks down Lorbeer (Pete Postlethwaite), the eccentric and contrite Afrikaans inventor of the drug being tested. As Justin gets deeper into the mystery of the malfeasance, he cannot escape the horrendous realities of what the drug companies, with government help, have wrought: So many of Africa's poor are their unsuspecting victims.

Recalling other recent high-end, issue-driven films like Veronica Guerin or Beyond Borders, The Constant Gardener is a case of well-produced clashing with well-meaning. It was the classic The Third Man that showed that such films succeed by relying on well-defined, intriguing characters who drive the story so that message (in that case, the evil of black-market drug dealing in post-war Vienna) simmers in a back seat.

Performances in The Constant Gardener are all superb, although characters here seem in service to the message. Meirelles, working again with his City of God D.P. Cesar Charlone, delivers a magnificent-looking work of prodigious colorations, breadth and angles-a battery of hand-held, filtered, POV, and intriguingly placed shots that helped win City of God its Oscar nominations.

The Constant Gardener is a good bet for discriminating audiences, but as The Third Man suggested, message films are best served by memorable characters, however repugnant, who deliver the message and not vice versa.
-Doris Toumarkine