In The Interpreter, a thriller from director Sidney Pollack set in and around the United Nations, Nicole Kidman plays a South African translator named Silvia Broome, who, after returning back to the UN to pick up some of her belongings, accidentally overhears what may be the makings of an assassination plot against an African president named Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), who is scheduled to deliver a speech there in a few days time.
Secret Service agents Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) and his partner Dot Woods (Catherine Keener) are assigned to investigate, but soon end up protecting Broome when strangers begin to follow her and show up outside her apartment at night. As the date for Zuwanie’s UN speech draws closer, Keller begins to learn more and more about Broome’s past, in which everything is not it appears.
Charles Randolph’s uneven screenplay is the main reason that stops The Interpreter from what could have been a great film. On the plus side, the main story idea is interesting; the characters believable and involving. On the downside, the overabundance of political sermonizing, red herrings and gaps in credibility, most likely the result of rewrites from Steven Zallian (Schindler’s List) and Scott Frank (Out of Sight), take the viewer out of the picture whenever they occur.
Fortunately, director Sidney Pollack is a man who knows how to make thrillers that are smart (Three Days of the Condor, The Firm) and also knows how to take a troubled script (Tootsie) and make it work. While he does not turn Randolph’s screenplay into another Tootsie, he does manage to make The Interpreter engrossing enough to recommend. Pollack directs with a deft hand, keeping events moving along while slowly building up some choice moments of tension (If you have avoided the film’s trailers and ads so far, keep it that way. They give away too much information.).
Penn and Kidman do not generate much onscreen chemistry together, but that actually works to the film’s advantage since their characters are pretty much at odds the entire time.
Penn’s underplaying of Keller perfectly suits his character and the state of his personal world when we first meet him. Penn is given plenty of chances to make a meal of his scenes, but to his credit he foregoes the chance of an Oscar’s Moment, which enables the audience to connect with his character – to an extent. Not quite a performance of the level of Mystic River or 21 Grams here, but still some top-flight work from one of the greatest screen actors working at present.
Kidman, possessing a decent South African accent, makes Silvia a lot smarter and stronger than you normally see in a thriller these day, and is equally as impressive as Penn. Instead of playing Silvia as a cowering damsel in distress, her character comes across as a woman of strong convictions, searching for the truth as much as Keller.
So far this year has been pretty brutal for intelligent movies, especially if you are over the age of 30 and in possession of two working brain cells. This film serves to fill that gap in the grey matter. If you are willing to overlook the script’s debits, you will find that The Interpreter translates into an entertaining two hours at the cinema.