Director : Sydney Pollack
Screenplay : Charles Randolph and Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian (story by Martin Stellman & Brian Ward)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Nicole Kidman (Silvia Broome), Sean Penn (Tobin Keller), Catherine Keener (Dot Woods), Jesper Christensen (Nils Lud), Yvan Attal (Philippe), Earl Cameron (Zuwanie), George Harris (Kuman-Kuman), Michael Wright (Marcus), Clyde Kusatsu (Police Chief Lee Wu), Eric Keenleyside (Rory Robb), Hugo Speer (Simon Broome)
Current global anxieties -- terrorism, despotism, third-world genocide -- are writ large in Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter, a sharply drawn thriller that has the distinction of being the first film ever shot inside the United Nations (not even Hitchcock could get permission when filming North by Northwest back in 1959). While the tension is good and the acting terrific, there is a bit too much speechifying in the film, and one wonders if all the idealistic, borderline naïve pandering to the philosophical foundation of the U.N. wasn’t inserted just to get permission to film there.
Nicole Kidman stars as Silvia Broome, a white African working as a translator at the U.N. One night, she happens to overhear a late-night whispered conversation between two unseen men about a plot to kill President Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), the despotic ruler of Matobo, her fictional home country (which is obviously based on Zimbabwe). However, when she reports what she has heard to the police, she finds that she is the chief suspect, particularly under the investigative glare of Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), a Secret Service agent whose chief occupation is protecting U.N. dignitaries.
Silvia’s story seems just a little too far-fetched, starting with the idea that she just “happened” to be in the U.N. after hours when two men just “happened” to be discussing an assassination in a remote language she just “happened” to understand. Because we see her overhear the conversation, there is no doubt that it took place and she honestly believes its content, and one wonders how much more twisted the film would have been had it left this scene out, thus casting doubt over whether it took place at all. The film’s mystery revolves entirely around Silvia and what her motives are; every revelation but one involves her background.
Pollack, whose other significant contribution to the political spy genre is 1975’s Three Days of the Condor, does us the service of avoiding that film’s major pitfall, which was the force-fitting of a hot romance into a tightly wound suspense plot where there wasn’t much room. Silvia and Keller are both intriguing characters, and it is obvious that they will forge some kind of connection during their days together leading up to Zuwanie’s arrival at the U.N. However, Pollack keeps their connection on an emotional level that doesn’t veer into romance just because the modern Hollywood double-plot structure demands it. Rather, he paints the characters as both deeply wounded and shows how they might find comfort with each other, however tentatively. Both Kidman and Penn turn in marvelous performances, giving The Interpreter an emotional backbone that is arguably more resilient than its double-crossing political conspiracy plot.
Yet, those global tensions are always there, creating a palpable sense of unease that frequently, though never entirely, undercuts the Hollywood gloss. A scorched opening scene in Matobo gives us an indelible portrait of a country gone to ruin, and a mid-movie sequence involving a host of major characters all finding themselves on the same bus leads to a moment of devastation that would have seemed blithely fictional in the days before 9/11. The Interpreter isn’t a political eye-opener by any means, particularly in the way it hews so closely to an idealized ideology of diplomacy in the face of global criminality, but it effectively merges important political issues with mass-market entertainment without canceling each other out.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2005 Universal Pictures