Vivid performances drive "The Constant Gardener," Fernando Meirelles's fine adaptation of the John Le Carre novel of the same name. The plot is a familiar one: A naif, driven by a need for justice denied, finds himself in the tumble-and-tear world of espionage. Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a mild-mannered junior diplomat seconded to the Kenya station, is shattered when his wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), is violently murdered on a "research trip" far up country with an African doctor. He learns quickly enough that Tessa, a social gadfly type, had quickly acquired a "reputation" in the tight little world of British diplomacy. He seems to be that most massive of losers, both the widower and the cuckold.

The movie essentially chronicles Justin's growth as he begins to understand what sort of a woman he had married and what sort of enemies she had accumulated -- and which lovers.

What he learns changes him profoundly, gives him direction and passion. Fiennes hasn't looked so good in years, playing a soft man become hard. Weisz, who is always good, is especially good. The quick evocations of diplomatic life, abuzz with gossip and nastiness, and corporate dealings, and even the world of anonymous travel off-passport, are splendidly done. But what is evoked best is Africa, that maddening panorama of beauty, nobility, death, mud, poverty and corruption.

The Brazilian director Meirelles has a powerful feel for the squalor of the Third World as he displayed in his great film "City of God." The film isn't an accomplishment on the level of "City of God," but it's a smart, stylish adult drama.

-- Stephen Hunter