Robin CliffordWhen translator Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman, "The Stepford Wives") overhears an assassination plot within the United Nations, Secret Service Agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn, "Mystic River") is assigned to protect the threatened Matoban President Zuwanie (Earl Cameron, "Thunderball"). Keller is frustrated by what he believes Broome is not telling him and finds himself also protecting her even while suspecting her involvement in director Sydney Pollack's ("Random Hearts," "Out of Africa") "The Interpreter."
Not only is "The Interpreter" Pollack's best film since 1993's "The Firm," but it is the first movie allowed to film within the United Nations. This smart, adult political thriller is the most satisfying movie to be released by a major distributor so far this year.
The film opens in Matobo with three men in a jeep arriving at a remote sports stadium. A black man and a white man tell the third, photographer Philippe (Yvan Attal, "My Wife Is an Actress"), to stay behind. They enter and a few young kids take them to see what they have come to see - the stacked bodies of their countrymen, the victims of genocide. Unfortunately, their contact was a trap and the two men are killed after a message is relayed from 'the teacher.' Philippe manages to take some pictures and escape. Meanwhile, back at the UN, Silvia, the only interpreter who can translate the Ku dialect (the language and its country of origin were both created for the film), is brought into a negotiation between the UN and Matobo. The Matobans act defensively and declare 'the teacher,' Zuwanie, will address the assembly. That night Silvia overhears his assassination plan.
The cleverly constructed screenplay by Charles Randolph ("The Life of David Gale"), Scott Frank ("Minority Report") and Steven Zaillian ("Gangs of New York") with major input from Pollack keeps the audience guessing throughout. It demands attention to keep up with the various camps moving about a complex playing field, but it's worth the effort. Silvia, whose exotic background includes growing up in Matobo where family members were killed by Zuwanie's land mines, is tight-lipped after Keller informs her he and his partner Dot Woods (Catherine Keener, "The Ballad of Jack & Rose") are there to protect Zuwanie and not her. The Service (Keller's boss is played by Pollack) thinks it is suspicious that an assassination would be discussed in a room full of microphones in a language that only Broome would understand. A polygraph proves inconclusive due to stress (the audience has seen that Silvia is visibly upset by the presence of Nils Lud (Jesper Christensen, "The Inheritance" ("Arven")), Zuwanie's head of security), but when Silvia learns her brother has been killed (Simon (Hugo Speer, "The Full Monty") was that white man in the stadium), Keller begins to build trust by sharing the grief he is experiencing - his wife was killed a mere two weeks prior.
This central relationship will likely frustrate those expecting sexual sparks to fly between a movie's leads, but the unlike pairing of Kidman and Penn works at a different, more intellectual level. These are people who are both in extreme states of mourning, not two people who are looking to get it on, and the understanding and caring that develops between the two actors feels genuine and hard won. Kidman does a great job playing a cultured woman of unusual background with just a touch of South African in her accent. A slightly graying Penn, looking sleep-deprived, plays Keller as a man crushed under a great weight hanging onto his high stress job as an emotional lifesaver. Several times throughout the film, Penn offers photo evidence as proof of Silvia's withholding information, then backs off while she fills in the blanks. African concepts, one of being on two sides of a river, the other about the emotional consequences of vengeance, are also clever devices that gradually connect the characters. Supporting players are all spot on with Keener providing a steadying injection of dry wit.
Pollack and his cinematographer Darius Khondji ("Wimbledon," "Panic Room") showcase the United Nations as modern, light and airy. Figures are frequently observed behind glass, like the characters who may not lie but may not always disclose all. The film's highlight is one tautly edited (William Steinkamp, "Runaway Jury," "Random Hearts") sequence featuring Silvia confronting one of Zuwanie's opponents suspected of betrayal to the cause, the Brooklyn-based Kuman-Kuman (George Harris, "Black Hawk Down"), on a bus while she's tailed by Keller's underling Marcus (Michael Wright, "Piñero") who has just ID'ed another suspect carrying a satchel to Keller and Woods via cell phone. It is a textbook illustration of Hitchcock's theory of suspense.
A faulty security device forces the evacuation of the General Assembly, staff members and the thousands visitors to the United Nations. Interpreter Sylvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), as she leaves, realizes that she forgot her bag and sneaks back in to retrieve it. She overhears a conversation on a set of headphones with one man saying, “The Teacher will never leave this room alive.” The Teacher is the nickname for the dictator of Sylvia’s homeland, Matobo, Africa, and she finds herself in the thick of an assassination plot in Sydney Pollack’s “The Interpreter.”
Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, as Secret Service diplomat protector Tobin Keller, may be the nominal stars of “The Interpreter,” but helmer Pollack and company have succeeded in the location coup of filmmaking. Alfred Hitchcock lobbied hard to be allowed to us the United Nations and its famous General Assembly as the backdrop for some of his 1959 film, “North by Northwest.” Since then, many have tried to get permission to use the distinctive landmark but all have failed. Until now.
In a master craftsman manner, Pollack has taken this hallowed institute and made it the third star of his film that tells a story of political intrigue, power play and assassination. Sylvia, on her return to the interpreters’ boot to fetch her stuff, overhears an assassination plot in her native Matobo language of Ku (both country and language invented for the story). The plot, to kill dictator, Dr. Edmund Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), makes her pause in notifying the authorities right away. Zuwanie was the man responsible for ordering widespread mine laying to suppress Matoban rebels. The order results in the death of Sylvia’s parents and sister and leaves an unrequited anger seething within the intelligent, pretty interpreter.
Sylvia’s initial reluctance to come forth with the information she overheard cause the UN diplomatic security people to bring in the US Secret Service for help. Agents Keller and Dot Woods (Catherine Keener) are assigned to the case but, instead of treating Sylvia like a cooperative witness, Tobin acts as if she is a suspect. As fact upon fact is uncovered and the assassination plot thickens, Keller tempers his mistrust for Broome even when he learns that, after her family’s death, she joined the rebels against Zuwanie. Things get very complicated as the political forces within and without Matobo vie for power and control of the country.
The Interpreter” is a slickly crafted political thriller that keeps the viewer guessing right along the way. Stars Kidman and Penn do fine in their principal roles but it’s the writing and exemplary supporting cast (and the stunning United Nation locale) that make “The Interpreter” a worthy entry into the political thriller genre.
Kidman is ethereally beautiful as Sylvia Broome and, once again proves her acting skills with a credible South African type accent and believable conversing in the fictional Ku. She is convincing as Sylvia and puts both mystery and emotion into her character. Sean Penn does a yeoman’s job as the troubled dignitary protector who lost his unfaithful dancer wife in a car accident only weeks before. Penn subtly conveys the angst of the depressed man who needs his job, even this crisis, to save him from his plight. There isn’t any romantic development (OK, maybe a little) between Sylvia and Tobin and this keeps the story moving along without wasting time on unrealistic romantic interludes – this was biggest gripe I had about another Sydney Pollack political thriller, “Three Days of the Condor,” with Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway.
The supporting cast and the screenplay (by Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steve Zaillian adapting the story by Martin Stellman and Brian Ward) give full dimension to the characters and the tale of political intrigue. Catherine Keener, as Keller’s partner, Dot, has the normally unforgiving role as the loyal sidekick but is able to infuse both humor and compassion in the part. Jesper Christensen, as Zuwanie’s Dutch mercenary head of security, Nils Lud, keeps you guessing as he increasingly becomes a key part in the assassination plot. Earl Cameron, as Dr. Zuwanie, does a solid job as a man who once, a long time ago, was of the people but has eschewed this role for absolute power in Matobo. George Harris, as Zuwanie’s exiled opposition leader, Kuman-Kuman, puts a 3D performance into what is a small, but important, role. The rest of the supporting cast help flesh things out.
The technical aspects for “The Interpreter” are first rate across the board. Darius Khondji’s lensing is some of the best this year, bringing out the various UN locations with a sure hand and eye. His camera dotes on Kidman nicely, too. The rest of the techs are a credit to “The Interpreter.”
The two-plus hour runtime is not a problem for this taut thriller. Besides the main story thread, there are other weavings to follow as the truth slowly comes out and the real motivations and plots come to fruition. This is a slickly produced political suspencer that should do well on both big and small screens. The production is of such high quality, though, you really should try to catch it in the theater. I give it a B+.
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