Directed by Sydney Pollack. Starring Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener, Yvan Attal, Earl Cameron, Jesper Christensen, George Harris, Byron Utley. (2005, PG-13, 128 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 22, 2005
The Interpreter is touted as the first commercial movie to shoot inside the United Nations, which means that this thriller is blessed with a truly incredible set-piece. The movie also toplines two of the best actors around – Kidman and Penn – who, along with director Pollack (he also appears in a minor role), are both bona fide Oscar winners. By all measures, The Interpreter should be one of the sharpest movies around, but it is not. It is intelligent, intriguing, and topical, but it too often gets mired in its own good intentions, too many plot convolutions, and character ambiguities that try to pass for suspense. The Interpreter tries to cast itself in the Hitchcockian tradition of Secret Agent and The Man Who Knew Too Much, but apart from the film’s climactic bus sequence and another nicely crafted sequence toward the movie’s end, this thriller never visually builds much tension or suspense. Instead, the intrigue stems mostly from the two central characters, whose distrust of each other deepens as they withhold important aspects of themselves from each other. Silvia Broome (Kidman) is an interpreter at the UN who accidentally overhears a death threat against a genocidal African tyrant who is due to speak in the General Assembly the following week. He is from the fictional country of Matobo, and the threat is spoken in the Ku language (also fictional), which just happens to be one of Silvia’s proficiencies. Penn plays Tobin Keller, a Secret Service agent who Silvia at first mistakenly believes has come to provide protection. But no, she is a suspect too, and further inexplicable actions on her part further promote that idea. There are enough threads and plot twists here for several movies and it seems the script retains equitable remnants of the original screenplay by Charles Randolph (The Life of David Gale) and the rewrites by Scott Frank (Out of Sight) and Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List) each. The Interpreter also pauses for lovely speeches about the peaceful mission of the UN (not wholly unwelcome in this UN-deflating day and age, but nevertheless hindrances to the film’s momentum). Kidman and Penn make an interesting pair – she so coolly intellectual, he so spontaneously visceral, and while they are always interesting to watch onscreen, The Interpreter will not be remembered as either’s best work. Keener (Being John Malkovich) is sadly underused in the role of Keller’s wise-cracking partner. The Interpreter is ultimately fluent in many things, but an out-and-out thriller it is not.