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The Interpreter (2005)
2 Stars

Directed by Sydney Pollack
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener, Jesper Christensen, Earl Cameron, Yvan Attal, George Harris, Michael Wright, Clyde Kusatsu, Eric Keenleyside, Hugo Speer, Maz Jobrani, Yusuf Gatewood
2005 – 135 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence, some sexual content and brief strong language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 20, 2005.

Solidly directed by Sydney Pollack (1999's "Random Hearts") with a nod toward the deliberate, mature way political intrigue was captured on film in the 1970s, "The Interpreter" tackles similar subject matter—namely, genocide—as 2004's "Hotel Rwanda." Whereas "Hotel Rwanda" was something of an informative history lesson, "The Interpreter" is not so much concerned with the exacting details of a bleak part of the African experience as it is a taut, character-driven thriller. The plot is a complex one that leads down some unexpected avenues, but it doesn't dig deep enough to be particularly memorable. What does stick with the viewer, and makes the experience more than it otherwise could have been, are the expert performances of Nicole Kidman (2004's "Birth") and Sean Penn (2003's "21 Grams"), sharing the screen for the very first time and carrying it off with the presence of true-blue movie stars.

A South African native now living in Manhattan, Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) works as a U.N. interpreter, doing her part to turn the tides of her violent past toward diplomacy. While dropping by the sound booth she works in to pick up a bag one night, she inadvertently hears whispers of a plot to assassinate Edmund Zuwani (Earl Cameron), the leader of her African country. Believing for good reason that she was seen and now in grave danger, Silvia sets out to convince Secret Service agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) that she is telling the truth. Tobin, who is still mourning the very recent death of his wife, wants to believe that Silvia means well, but his research into her former life in Africa—her parents and just about everyone she ever cared about were killed under Zuwani's control—gives him reason to believe she wants the head of state dead as much as anyone.

"The Interpreter" was filmed in part at the actual United Nations building in New York City (another cinematic first), invigorating the picture with an accurate immediacy that couldn't have been replicated on a studio backlot. As with the thrillers of the '70s—think director Sydney Pollack's own 1975 effort, "Three Days of the Condor"—"The Interpreter" is slow-moving but never tedious, a rare thriller for grown-ups that gradually embroils the viewer into the high stakes faced by Silvia Broome and Tobin Keller. There are surprises in the narrative to be had, but screenwriters Stephen Zaillian (2002's "Gangs of New York"), Scott Frank (2002's "Minority Report") and Charles Randolph (2003's "The Life of David Gale") wisely set their focus on the internal conflicts facing their two protagonists rather than playing cheap story-centric mind games.

Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn own every frame of the film. The rest of the characters are mostly peripheral, and only the valuable Catherine Keener (2002's "Lovely & Amazing") as Tobin's partner, Dot Woods, has screen time of any consequence. Without any impactful supporting players, the picture lives or dies with the onscreen rendering of Silvia Broome and Tobin Keller. Penn is usually better in low-key performances—for proof, compare his overblown work in 2003's "Mystic River" with his brilliantly nuanced turn in "21 Grams"—and, luckily, that is the route he has chosen in portraying Agent Tobin Keller. When we find out that his wife has died only weeks earlier, it is a disturbing admission. After all, for a man who loved his family so very much, how could he have returned to work so soon and now act like everything is all right? Through his chance assignment in working with the equally mournful Silvia, his eyes are opened up to the tragedy that befalls all our lives every day. Penn underplays better and with more effectiveness than just about any veteran actor working today.

In her latest in a seemingly endless series of great performances, Nicole Kidman is every bit Penn's match, and maybe then some. Aesthetically, she has possibly never looked more beautiful and radiant on screen. Technically, she faultlessly tackles a tricky South African accent and builds her somewhat ambiguous character with a breathtaking depth and focus just as crystal-clear even when the viewer is supposed to be questioning her motives. Every step of the way, Kidman makes her Silvia into a sympathetic individual whom we consistently understand the things she does and why she is doing them. One of the signs of a natural born actor is the way he or she is able to morph so fully into the people they play that one forgets their real-life persona. Kidman has this unique gift in the same way Meryl Streep does, and could make reading the telephone book gripping entertainment.

Slickly photographed by Darius Khondji (2004's "Wimbledon") and classily scored by James Newton Howard (2003's "Signs"), "The Interpreter" looks good, sounds good, and is a motion picture that the actors make worth seeing. This is fortunate, as the particulars of the plot, while working just fine in the moment, fade from memory soon after the end credits have subsided. "The Interpreter" has a complicated story, yes, but director Sydney Pollack doesn't delve deeply enough to make its topical content ring with lasting palpability. It ends up, then, being just a well-made suspense drama that plays primarily on a surface level, not matching the emphatic nature and clarity with which Silvia and Tobin are themselves so passionately depicted.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman