Interpreter, The (United States/United Kingdom, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Interpreter is a cut above the average politically-based thriller. Although the events depicted in the film are fictional (as is the country in which some of the action transpires), they bear a more-than-passing resemblance to incidents that have rocked African nations in recent decades. This makes the backstory more credible than what one might otherwise expect. The screenplay successfully develops suspense without relying on the bait-and-switch tactics that often leave a viewer dissatisfied with an "unexpected" twist. The Interpreter builds to a satisfying conclusion that will not inflict the average audience member with a case of cinematic whiplash.

The film is a little overplotted, and, as is often the case with movies of this sort, there is a coincidence that has to be absorbed in order for the story to work. Once the viewer gets over that hump, however, it's clear sailing. Veteran directory Sydney Pollack, whose experience in the genre dates back to Three Days of the Condor, understands that thrillers work best when the characters are real, and, by casting Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, two of the best working performers, he allows acting to transform the clichéd protagonists into three-dimensional individuals we come to care about.

Silvia Broome (Kidman) spent most of her life as a member of the affluent white minority in the African country of Matobo. As an adolescent, she lost her mother, father, and sister to a landmine. Now, she works as a translator at the United Nations in New York. Edmond Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), Matobo's president and the man Silvia blames for her parents' demise, is coming to the U.N. to make a speech designed to circumvent his being placed on trial for human rights violations. Late one night, when Silvia returns to her sound booth to retrieve some belongings, she inadvertently overhears a conversation between two men who are plotting to kill Zuwanie. And when they see her, she becomes a target.

Enter Secret Service agents Tobin Keller (Penn) and Dot Woods (Catherine Keener), who are called to investigate Silvia's story. Tobin is on shaky emotional ground. His wife was recently killed in a car accident and he is fighting to keep it together. At first, he is skeptical of Silvia's tale - considering her background as a political opponent of Zuwanie, it seems unlikely that she would come forward with information that might save his life. But, as he spends time with her, he begins to trust her, and, when there is an attempt on her life, he takes on the role of her protector. But there are things she isn't telling him, and her silence places both of them in danger.

The Interpreter pays a great deal of attention to the recent history and politics of its fictional African country. 28 years ago, when he came to power, Zuwanie was hailed as a hero. But, to quote the saying, power corrupts. The dictator's paranoia led to a ruthless purge of his supposed enemies, with many innocents being caught in the crossfire. The word "genocide" is spoken aloud, not just whispered. Now, two rivals work to overthrow Zuwanie, but he, and his henchmen, are aware of the threat they pose.

How fine is the line between a good thriller and a poor one? With a less accomplished cast, a director less sure of the material, and screenwriters who don't fill in as many blanks, The Interpreter could have been direct-to-late-night-cable B-movie fare. But it isn't. This is solid, welcome entertainment that doesn't rely on car chases and shoot-outs (although both are represented, after a fact) to generate tension. The first 60 or 70 minutes of the movie are primarily set-up. As the story moves forward, the characters' backgrounds are gradually revealed. Once we're into the second hour, Pollack ratchets up the pace a few notches and we notice a quickening of the pulse.

Although primarily designed to get the adrenaline pumping, The Interpreter also functions as a morality play, asking questions about the value of revenge ("vengeance is a lazy form of grief," remarks a character at one point) and whether the taking of a life does anything to assuage emotional pain. And there's a low-key love story of sorts. Penn and Kidman both play damaged individuals who find a degree of solace in each other's company. The way they connect, and the limits they place upon how much comfort they seek, is believable. (It's interesting to note that Kidman, with her hair lightened almost to blond, bears a striking resemblance to Naomi Watts. This causes a déjà vu flashback to the Penn/Watts interaction in 21 Grams. That was another film in which pain, more than love, formed the foundation of a key relationship.)

There's a sense of unpredictability about some of the things that happen in The Interpreter, but at no time do any of these turns seem forced. Elements of the ending are facile, but nearly all of the loose ends are wrapped up, and we don't suffer through the kind of "happily ever after" epilogue that would betray The Interpreter's underlying dark tone. This is a finely balanced and crafted motion picture. Despite the PG-13 rating, which will allow admittance to audiences of all ages, Pollack and his screenwriters appear to have crafted this picture with adults in mind.

Interpreter, The (United States/United Kingdom, 2005)

Run Time: 2:08
U.S. Release Date: 2005-04-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1