"The Constant Gardener" is a love story wrapped inside a thriller, a passionate political message hidden in a would-be blockbuster —...

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“The Constant Gardener” is a love story wrapped inside a thriller, a passionate political message hidden in a would-be blockbuster — and a crackling good movie tiptoeing into theaters on a Wednesday in late August, when such things are as rare as pre-Labor Day snowstorms.

Based on John le Carré’s novel, the film is the story of Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a milquetoast, middle-rung British diplomat in Kenya. At the beginning of the film, he learns that his fiery activist wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) has been murdered. Mirroring the book’s structure, the film flashes back to fill in the story of this unlikely couple, just as it moves inexorably forward to tell the truth of what happened to her.

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“The Constant Gardener,” with Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite. Directed by Fernando Meirelles, from a screenplay by Jeffrey Caine, based on the novel by John le Carré. 128 minutes. Rated R for language, some violent images and sexual content/nudity. Alderwood Stadium 7, East Valley 13, Everett 9, Factoria, Galleria 11, Kirkland Parkplace Cinemas, Longston Place 14, Majestic Bay Theatres, Marysville 14, Meridian 16, Monroe 12, Oak Tree, Parkway Plaza 12, Redmond Town Center, Seven Gables, Woodinville12.

Like the Quayles, “The Constant Gardener” is a combustible mixture of coolness and heat. The British reserve and precision of le Carré and screenwriter/novelist Jeffrey Caine blends with the warmth of director Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”), who brings a raw, almost angry energy to the film. Director of photography Cesar Charlone (who also worked on “City of God”) gives us a study in contrasts: Kenya is simmering with baked-on color in oranges and browns; London is quietly soaked in blue-gray. Fiennes and Weisz create two characters from ice and fire — and, by the end, show us why they loved each other.

When Justin hears the news of Tessa’s death — from his colleague Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston), whose motives later become satisfyingly murky — he does not scream or gasp or faint. As the camera moves in closer on his pale face, he tightens his lips, seemingly draining the life from his features. Every motion Fiennes makes in this film feels deliberate, and that’s exactly right for this character. He first meets Tessa (in flashback) at a press conference, where she’s angrily raising questions he doesn’t know how to answer. They end up going home together. “You’re quite scary,” he tells her admiringly, which probably passes as flirting among the British diplomatic corps.

Soon they’re married and in Kenya, with a baby on the way, and she’s trying to balance her own determination to change the world with his don’t-make-waves position. Not easy — Tessa “could be a terrier, when she had a scent,” as a character notes. Weisz gives her an irresistible sparkle, continually asking questions nobody wants to hear, in her silky, almost purring voice. After her death, Justin — who normally spent his nonwork hours placidly tending his garden — is mobilized to find answers to the questions Tessa left behind: about her fidelity, about the pharmaceutical company she was investigating, about the human-rights causes to which she was so devoted.

A Wednesday in late summer, during a week when everyone goes on vacation, is an odd choice for unveiling a film as smart, well-crafted and satisfying as this one. Don’t let “The Constant Gardener” disappear with the summer sun.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com