Nicole Kidman in Universal Pictures' The Interpreter - 2005
Photo Copyright Universal Pict
Sydney Pollack is a master of the tense political thriller, though it's a genre we saw much more in the eighties and early nineties than we do now. But, maybe with all the political wrangling we see between Republicans and Democrats, and more relevantly, between the U.S. and the rest of the world, the time is ripe for a resurgence. If so, The Interpreter, a solid, if somewhat predictable, tale of intrigue within the hallowed halls of the U.N., is the perfect forbearer.
Nicole Kidman is Sylvia Broome, a United Nations interpreter with dual citizenship and a murky political past. When she overhears a plot to kill a controversial African dignitary, her life is turned upside down, and it's up to a tortured Secret Service agent, a sleepy-eyed Sean Penn, to put it right again. But there is more to Sylvia than meets the eye. Is she lying? Who is she protecting? And what stake does she have in any possible assassination? Pollack deftly answers these and other pressing questions in a taut and engaging manner, making The Interpreter a welcome weekend diversion.
While I enjoyed the film, I should say that I don't think it is among Pollack's best work. Absence of Malice, Tootsie, and The Firm each had more art, drama, and more overall cohesion. Interpreter has good drama, but at times feels a little ham-handed in the transition from scene to scene, as though Pollack were passing much of the grunt work off to assistants. What it does have going for it, however, is Nicole Kidman, whose character is engaging and intriguing to say the least. Kidman is rapidly turning into the Meryl Streep of her generation, mastering accent and character seamlessly, rarely drawing attention to her megawatt star power.
A detriment to the film, unfortunately, is master thespian Sean Penn, who feels as though he is simply strolling though this role on the way to something more important. Having recently lost his wife to an auto accident, Penn's Tobin Keller plods through the film with a half-lidded weariness that completely smothers any energy the character may have possessed. Penn, in his later years, has become a very issue-oriented actor, so it's a wonder that he didn't take advantage of his starring role in a film that is just begging to make a statement. I'm currently in the middle of At Close Range, starring Penn and Christopher Walken, and there is a stark contrast between smoldering, languid Penn of 1984, hungry and working to make the best impression he could, and the Penn of The Interpreter, collecting a paycheck for looking sad.
With the turmoil in Africa right now, The Interpreter would seem the perfect film to highlight the unrest, and to an extent, it does. Africa is a beautiful, rugged place with eager, friendly, hardworking people who just happen to live under a succession of brutal dictators. So widespread is the cruelty and corruption throughout the continent, that it's a wonder anything gets done at all. As such, African despots make the perfect foil for current Hollywood villainhood. But, as is usually the case, the real stories are more complicated, and the film makes a valiant, if slightly truncated attempt to address the difficult questions faced by these emerging nations. With genocide around every corner, child soldiering, and the AIDS epidemic, Africa is most certainly a land that bears discussing. However, for the sake of expediency, much of the real political turmoil in this film, and in others like it, is sidestepped for whatever contrived romance or back story that is being foisted on the characters. The Interpreter succeeds in avoiding cliche to an extent, though it does employ its fair share of stock characters.
The Interpreter has much in common with other films of the genre, and in that way, is both familiarly enjoyable and, ultimately, lacking in creativity. "So what?" you may be thinking. "I go to the movies to be entertained, not challenged at every turn." I agree. I enjoyed The Interpreter, its twists and turns, its dramatic moments, and most of all, Kidman's fiery presence. As a piece of art, it's nothing new, but as a movie, it has an engaging story that draws you in, and a comfortable feeling of familiarity. It may not be Oscar worthy, but good storytelling, above average acting, and a steady directoral hand translates into a good night at the movies. Grade: B
The Interpreter is rated PG-13 for violence, some sexual content and brief strong language.
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