These films have quite a bit in common. Both deal with corrupt companies and aid organizations, massive pain and suffering in the "third world," and "bleeding heart" Westerners who risk everything to try to make a difference. While The Constant Gardener focuses solely on Africa, Beyond Borders starts there, but moves to Eastern Europe and Asia. In Beyond Borders the original bleeding heart who gets himself into trouble is a sexy British man (Clive Owen) and the person he radicalizes who eventually comes to save him is a gorgeous younger woman (Angelina Jolie). In The Constant Gardener, it's the sexy British man (Ralph Fiennes) who is radicalized by the bleeding heart sexy younger woman (Rachel Weisz). All in all, though, they have in common than not. They even have matching "save this child, even if all of the others die!" scenes, complete with wise, Black chauffeurs (one a truck driver, one a pilot) telling the stupid white bleeding hearts that isn't the way things work. It's eerie, actually.
Except that Beyond Borders was widely panned, and The Constant Gardener was heavily praised. And except that I found Beyond Borders depressing, but interesting and well-made, and The Constant Gardener ridiculous, confusing, and way, way too long.
Part of the reason I thought Beyond Borders was actually the better of the two films was acting. Angelina Jolie was as good as she ever is (something that depends completely on your perspective, I guess), but Clive Owen brought the house down. The Constant Gardener, on the other hand, was drug down by the slow pace of Ralph Fiennes, who I can't ever make myself care about in a movie, and was also a surprisingly dull turn for Rachel Weitz, who I normally like a lot (and who, quite surprisingly, won an Oscar for the role). The supporting cast, including Bill Nighy and the always-fantastic Pete Postlewaite was quite good, but it wasn't enough to save the film.
The biggest difference, though, was pace. The Constant Gardener was slow, slow, slow. And I think that is actually one of the reasons it was so highly praised. People are always afraid that if they are bored by a movie, it reflects badly on them, rather than on the film, so they often pretend that they were actually interested enough that the dragging 2+ hours was fine with them. Well, I'm not proud, I'll admit it wasn't fine with me. I thought it was boring and more confusing than it needed to be, and the insistence on using the same footage several times, with different color filters, to portray Ralph Fiennes emotions, seemed to me to be more of a cruel trick than an artistic device. We certainly didn't need to see that stuff two or three times--it wasn't that good the first time around, and the damn movie was long enough as it was.
Some, I'm sure, would put my irritation with the pace of The Constant Gardener down to my MTV-generation attention span, but I think that's a cop out. I can handle a long and serious movie, it's a long and serious movie that I don't care about the outcome of that gives me a problems. If the acting, writing, and directing had been better, the length of the film wouldn't have been a problem. Proof of that? I just looked up the run times and saw that Beyond Borders was actually only two minutes shorter than The Constant Gardener, which I never would have guessed.
The bottom line, I suppose, is that if you are looking to watch an incredibly depressing movie about how much things suck for people in other corners of the world and how you, implicitly or explicitly, are responsible for it, go against the grain and choose Angie and Clive's take. I wouldn't classify either of these as great films, but Beyond Borders is certainly the better of the two.