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Interpreter, The (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 22 April 2005
Sydney Pollack’s “The Interpreter” is a solid, well-crafted drama/thriller in which the major sub-theme relates to grief and how to deal with it. In the trailers and advertising, the basic idea—a U.N. interpreter accidentally overhears an assassination plot—seems to suggest that this is a Hitchcock-like exercise in suspense. Surprisingly, it’s really a somber, intelligent drama; suspense plays a part, but the movie’s goals go far beyond the edge-of-the-seat thrill-o-rama the trailers promise.

Pollack has had an uneven career, but his lows are not embarrassing and his highs are top-notch Hollywood filmmaking. “The Interpreter” is weakened somewhat by overlength and a less-than-gripping middle section. Also, the suicide of a major secondary character is so badly motivated that you can easily assume it was murder, and begin waiting for the killer to be revealed. The storytelling is a bit ragged at times; instead of a straight-line narrative, the movie tends to be discursive. And despite the casting of two such iconic figures as Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, at heart it is not about the relationship of their characters.

However, it’s strong, adult entertainment, an intelligent movie intended for intelligent people; it trusts its audience and never condescends. The performances are, unsurprisingly, excellent—and it’s interesting to have two stars with such contrasting styles working together. Kidman and Penn both dig deeply into their characters, but Kidman shows us the result of her efforts, Penn is less giving to audiences—we have to do some of the work. But it’s inspired casting; they are graceful and balanced. One or the other or both of them are on screen almost for the entire film.

Not, however, for the opening. We see two men, white and black, who are clearly colleagues; another white man, a photographer, rides in the back seat of their Land Rover. They’re in the (fictional) African country of Matobo, on their way to a soccer stadium for an important rendezvous. The first two tell the photographer to wait as they enter the stadium—where they’re shot to death by boys.

In New York, Sylvia Broome (Kidman) is an interpreter at the United Nations building, often working in the General Assembly. We soon learn she was born in the U.S. but brought up in Matobo, and considers herself a citizen of that country. She has few friends, plays the flute, and lives in a quiet apartment decorated with photos of life in Matobo. We also see that she has a notebook like the one the dead white man had.
After a bomb scare evacuates the building, Sylvia returns to the translator booth to get some belongings—and hears a voice speaking in Ku, a Matobo language she knows well. She can’t see anyone, but she hears the voice say “The Teacher will never leave this room alive.” She knows wo the Teacher is; he’s Edmond Zuwanie (Earl Cameron); initially a strong advocate for the rights of the downtrodden citizens he ousted the tyrant who ruled Matobo. But over time, he too has become corrupted by power; there are two rebel leaders, Kuman-Kuman (George Harris), who lives in Brooklyn, and Xola (Curtiss I’ Cook), younger and more left-wing. These two are not only opposed to Zuwanie but to one another. But we know, though at first no one else does, that Xola was killed with that white man in the soccer arena.

The world has become suspicious and critical of Zuwanie, who’s been accused of genocide and who, in the tradition of questinonable leaders everywhere, has begun calling his opponents “terrorists.” Now he’s coming to New York to make his case before the U.N. General Assembly.

Sylvia immediately informs U.N. security about what she overheard. Meanwhile, we meet Tobin Keller (Penn), who looks as worn and tired as his eyes, as if he’s not been getting enough sleep. In a bar, he toys with his wedding ring, plays what HE wants on the juke box, then calls his own number to hear the recorded voice of his wife. Clearly there’s something wrong in his marriage, but just what it is goes unrevealed for a while.

He’s a Secret Service agent assigned to the Dignitary Protection Squad along with his partner Dot Woods (Catherine Keener), who’s good with low-key sarcastic wisecracks. They’re assigned to investigate Sylvia; Keller is suspicious of her, but guardedly polite. He gradually comes to realize that she is in danger herself and that while what she tells him is mostly the truth, she’s also lying and holding information back. And yet on an unspoken, subtle level, the two begin to connect.

For the first time, the United Nations gave permission to a Hollywood production company to shoot in and around the U.N. building in Manhattan. Pollack makes the most of it; we get a kind of cook’s tour of the building, and it is impressive to see the vast General Assembly room, the site of so much hope and promise. The film is squarely behind the U.N.’s basic idea, which is stated in the film as “words and compassion are the better way even if it’s slower than a gun.”

The script was by Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian, who worked consecutively, not together. There’s a little raggedness here and there; the suicide mentioned before is an example of this—it turns up just at the right moment to give Teller information about Sylvia that she doesn’t have herself, and removes a potentially complicating character. But the strength of the script is in the clear depiction of the characters, the realistic dialogue and the ability to make national issues deeply personal.

Although this is not by any stretch an action movie, there’s some gunfire and at one point a frightening but visually satisfying explosion, treated very realistically—especially in the aftermath. Toward the end, the movie builds suspense very carefully and thoroughly as Zuwanie arrives in the U.S. is surrounded by Secret Service agents and his own guards, then sets out for the U.N. Teller knows that the intended weapon has to have been smuggled into the building earlier—but where is it? Sylvia has disappeared, though she’s clearly not the would-be assassin, so where is she?

The movie really belongs to Kidman and Penn, and they’re more than up to the task of carrying it. They really are drawn to one another, but both of them have too many issues at the moment to progress much beyond friendship; both are suffering the loss of people close to them, and they haven’t yet worked everything out. But in his understated way, Penn suggests a man who, though torn by grief, can eventually come to terms with what happened. Sylvia is on the verge of beginning the same journey.

The supporting cast is very fine, and includes director Pollack in a small, but important, unbilled role. Dutch actor Jesper Christensen makes his American movie debut as a Matobo head of security. He’s quite good, but let down a little by the script which makes it too clear, too early that he is probably involved in the planned assassination. On the other hand, the movie deftly hands us the key to the whole thing in a remark made almost casually in a TV newscast.

The movie has more good ideas than bad, and one of the best is a Matobo tribal ritual—of the Ku tribe, in fact—regarding revenge and grief. It’s called “The Drowning Man Ritual,” and offers the relatives of a dead person (murdered or accidentally killed) a way to either get revenge or to bring their time of grief to full closure. Although Matobo and the Ku are fictional, it’s a remarkably believable and emotionally intriguing idea; it plays a part in the climax.

The few flaws of “The Interpreter” are hardly fatal or even very serious. Pollack’s earlier “The Three Days of the Condor” also had some weaknesses, but there as here, the overall approach and style, the intelligent treatment of serious themes, and a strong cast make his movie well worth seeing. It’s likely to be an Oscar contender.

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