Film Reviews: Wednesday, April 20, 2005
The Interpreter
Starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. Directed by Sydney Pollack. Written by Charles Randolph, Scott Frank, and Steven Zaillian. Rated PG-13.
Diplomatic Language

Smooth and provocative, The Interpreter translates to a bold middlebrow thriller.


Throughout Sydney Pollack’s directing career (a sporadic one despite some box-office hits), he’s always been at his best doing old-school, slick-but-brainy thrillers, from 1993’s The Firm all the way back to 1975’s Three Days of the Condor. He’s lost none of his sharpness in his latest such movie, The Interpreter, a well-crafted political drama filmed largely in the real-life United Nations Building, which serves as a superb, opulent backdrop for the story. It’s a good thriller, but it’s also a rarer creature: an expensive Hollywood action film that works as a detailed character study.
When U.N. interpreter Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) returns to her workplace after hours one night, she overhears two voices in the Grand Chamber plotting to assassinate the president of a fictitious African country (Earl Cameron) when he visits the U.N. to defend himself against charges of genocide. The U.S. Secret Service agent assigned to protect the foreign leader, Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), keeps tabs on Silvia and quickly learns that her role as a witness to this conspiracy has jeopardized her life. However, he remains skeptical of her because she’s an exile from that same African nation, with good reasons to hold a grudge against the president.
That the lovely damsel in distress might be a shady character is one of the movie’s more intriguing ideas. More compelling than the twists in the assassination plot are the hidden depths in Silvia’s past that keep coming to light under investigation. It’s refreshing that her initial dislike of Keller softens into respect rather than romance, though sadly, the agent is given clichéd personal baggage of his own. Penn is perfectly ordinary in an ordinary part, as is an overqualified Catherine Keener as his partner. Their co-star isn’t — with tangled blonde hair and an Afrikaans accent that’ll convince the 95 percent of moviegoers who’ve never heard a genuine one, Kidman sinks her voice to a weary whisper and conveys the tortured conscience behind the character’s academically rumpled façade, never more so than in a well-written scene where Silvia discloses the violent act that drove her to embrace non-violence and the U.N.’s mission. This quiet performance is the center of this movie, and it stays with you. (I still can’t help wondering whether the filmmakers ever considered Charlize Theron, who actually is a white Afrikaner.)
The action sequences come off splendidly, particularly a nerve-frying scene with four major characters, including a killer and his target, on a New York City bus. (It would’ve been even better if the movie’s trailer hadn’t given it away.) The same holds true for the climactic hostage situation, when it becomes clear that Silvia’s love for her war-torn homeland has driven the entire plot. The film audaciously presents this educated white woman as another face of suffering Africa. Mainstream movies seldom deal with notions as troubling and provocative as this and seldom do it in a manner as smooth and entertaining as The Interpreter.

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