After his radical wife (Weisz) is found savagely murdered in the Kenyan bush, low-ranking British diplomat Justin Quayle (Fiennes) begins to suspect this was no simple bandit attack but the result of a conspiracy much closer to home. Retracing her path, he unearths a terrible secret and the legacy of a woman he never truly knew.
Those au fait with the icy vibe of spymaster John Le Carré may be surprised to hear that this latest adaptation of one of his labyrinthine novels is not set among the rusting cracks of the Iron Curtain but the sun-baked shanty towns of Kenya. And neither is it concerned with the shenanigans of secret agents. At least, not directly. This is haunting romance, a ruminating thriller and a depiction of modern Africa a million moons from the grandeur of Meryl Streep’s “faahhrm” in the veldt.
What won’t surprise is that Jeffrey Caine’s script is a demanding beast. We have to grasp the origins of the marriage between impassioned Tessa (Weisz) and an inert — except when tending his florid garden — Quayle (Fiennes) after it has been horribly sundered. Through a series of extended flashbacks, Weisz gives Tessa such irrepressible spirit she looms ghost-like over the rest of the movie. We have to pick up the threads of a typically fiddly Le Carré conspiracy involving the dark practices of drug companies testing medicines in the desperate backwaters of Nairobi — something Tessa was on to and hid from her husband, a man sequestered on the bottom rung of the diplomatic ladder. Plus, there hangs a doubt over Tessa’s fidelity; an oily Danny Huston, as Quayle’s haughty superior, was obsessed with her.
City Of God’s fireball Fernando Meirelles (who replaced the Potter-bound Mike Newell) restrains the whiplash pans and hyper-space tracking shots of his first outing to moodily tread among such multi-layered and slow-burning material. As the film stretches out its limbs to expose the weighty political subtext — aid as a poisoned chalice — he finds his feet, shooting the street poverty and arid Kenyan expanses with a bold, unsentimental eye while revealing a sensitivity for character.
Fiennes, inch by delicate inch, awakens Quayle from his torpor to feel what his wife so badly felt about the injustice meted out to the Third World. Meirelles has also managed a very literary concept — the inversed plot. This is a love story told in its aftermath, a rites-of-passage drama flowing from middle-aged stasis into youthful passion and a thriller where the outcome is preordained, but devastating all the same.
Serious, topical filmmaking of a very high order. It may not engage as immediately as a Bourne, but it sticks with you longer.