Title: The Interpreter
Genre: Crime, Mystery, Thriller
Director: Sydney Pollack
Screenwriters: Martin Stellman, Brian Ward
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener
The Interpreter is being advertised as a crackerjack thriller in the vein of Tom Clancy and the Jack Ryan films, but this strategy might just backfire. If Sydney Pollack’s first film since 1999’s Random Hearts is uncommonly intelligent, it is also uncommonly sedate, with no conspicuous displays of style and nothing that can be described as an “action sequence.” It moves from scene to scene thoughtfully and with little apparent concern for pace; at its leisure, it explores the characters’ histories, pauses to admire the views of the United Nations’ New York headquarters, and patiently lays out a moderately compelling political intrigue scenario that (eventually) reaches a satisfying, if eminently predictable conclusion.
Another peculiarity is that the film naively, almost unassumingly, wears its heart on its sleeve. Where other films would painstaking build walls of plot around its secrets, The Interpreter decides to telegraph its ending with stunning blatancy (I am fairly sure I recoiled in my seat), and it never even pretends to hide the fact that its protagonist — multinational UN interpreter Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) — is hiding something at least moderately dark. I called the movie “predictable,” but in this case that gives the wrong impression — it’s not predictable because its inane, but because it doesn’t seem to care about dissembling where it’s going.
Given all this, I am not sure exactly what to make of The Interpreter. It doesn’t crackle like we’ve been conditioned to expect from this genre, and Pollack seems to be insisting that it’s not supposed to, but dammit, everything inside me wanted, demanded a flurry of exciting activity, with furious cutting, a soaring soundtrack, and a general Tony Scott atmosphere. Even good old Phil Alden Robinson succumbed to this temptation with The Sum of All Fears, but then again, that was a Tom Clancy movie, and Clancy wouldn’t have it any other way.
Maybe it’s better that Pollack and Co. didn’t succumb to baser instincts. The actual subject matter — the possible assassination of a controversial warlord in a fictional third-world African country — isn’t sensational in the Grand Scheme of Things, and dressing it up with flashy stylistics would likely have neutered it and rendered it ridiculous. As it stands, the characters realize that the fate of the world isn’t really at stake, which gives them time to pursue more intimate endeavors — the Secret Service Agent assigned to investigate Silvia, played by a typically morose Sean Penn, is recovering from the loss of his wife, and Silvia may or may not have a brother embroiled in some nefarious freedom-fighting efforts. Interesting how the screenplay is able to seamlessly intertwine the global and the personal.
I was fascinated, too, by Kidman’s efforts to play a woman of utterly indeterminate nationality — her character was born in Africa, I believe, and roamed Europe before arriving in New York City to be a translator. Of course, I do not know how technically accurate the actress’ accent is for the characters’ circumstances, but I can say that it is impeccably convincing; Kidman is Australian, and her accent in the film may be close to her natural speech, but it is off just enough to seem exotic, inscrutable, mysterious. It adds another dimension to the certainty that Silvia is hiding something.
The Interpreter is a good film, intelligently and sensitively written, put together with skill and professionalism. Its curious brand of zen calmness is only a problem if it takes you by surprise, and even then the surprise may be a pleasant one. Tom Clancy likely would not be proud, but Clancy is becoming increasingly irrelevant anyway. This is a refreshingly sober take on political intrigue.