A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, PG-13, 128 mins.
Silvia Broome: Nicole Kidman / Tobin Keller: Sean Penn / Dot Woods: Catherine Keener
Nils Lud: Jesper Christensen /
Philippe: Yvan Attal / Zuwanie: Earl Cameron / Kuman-Kuman: George Harris
/ Marcus: Michael Wright
I have always maintained a belief that a good thriller is that much better when we, as the audience, can buy into the proceedings. When the story, characters, and situations bare and resonate with a sort of authentic weight, then it only makes the tension and drama that much more palatable.
A considerable amount of modern thrillers have been able to accomplish this while employing other- worldly themes (see SIGNS, for example), whereas too many others rely far too much on manufactured scares and shock value that undermines the conventions of the genre. The new political thriller – THE INTERPRETER – is an invigorating and entertaining political pot-boiler that has a genuine sense of realistic dread and foreboding, maybe because it involves dealings at the United Nations and was actually shot at the UN, which gives it it’s impeccable sense of verisimilitude. Not only that, but it also has two of the finest actors of their respective generations – Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman – as well as the assured, simple, and confident direction of the veteran Sydney Pollack. After the banality of his last film, 1999’s RANDOM HEARTS, Pollack is sure back in fine form here.
Pollack is no stranger to this genre. His 1993 Tom Cruise staring vehicle – THE FIRM – was a well-oiled law thriller that was expertly paced, acted, and directed. He also did 1981’s ABSENCE OF MALICE, a solid thriller in its own right, not to mention the wonderful THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR from 1975, where Pollack’s mastery of the genre most likely originated.
Watching THE INTERPRETER is kind of like a breath of fresh air in the sense of seeing how an old hand director knows how to impeccably tell a dense and detailed thriller with minimal visual fuss. The key to Pollack is that he does not fall victim to the style of so many modern directors, with their overwrought MTV-style visuals with kinetic and fast-paced editing that makes one’s head spin (are you listening Michael Bay?). Instead, he keenly knows the bare bones of what makes a great thriller – an astute focus on characters with depth and empathy, a well-plotted script, and direction that does not lead attention to itself.
Pollack is refreshingly old school in his style with THE INTERPRETER and this makes for a film that is taut, suspenseful in all the right places, and allows for our effective buy-in for the characters that are elevated above their clichéd bases into people we care about, most likely because of the strong lead performances. THE INTERPRETER is far from perfect, but it is a prime example of how gifted and intelligent direction and performances can elevate a film above its base mediocrity. In another’s hands, the film would have been a bust.
The film is very intricately and heavily plotted (maybe too much for its own good), but Pollack still tells an appealing story. It stars Nicole Kidman (again, in a very rich and layered performance) as Silvia Broome, who is a white African who spent most of her life as a well-of minority in the country of Matobo. As the film develops we slowly and learn details about her life (which is naturally allowed to be revealed to us, and not in some painfully overwrought expositional dialogue scenes). She did have a mother, father, and sister who were are killed and, years after that, she has found herself working at the United Nations in New York as an interpreter for a language that only a few in the world are capable of translating into English.
Late one night Silvia returns to the UN headquarters to her sound booth to pick up some items she left behind and she accidentally stumbles upon a conversation that she is able to pick up off of the headphones. The conversation is done is tight whispers, which would make it very difficult for her to pinpoint who the two are, but the details of their secret conversation are chilling: there is a plot to kill Edmond Zuwanie, Matobo’s President. In one of those ill-timed incidents that only seem to happen in the movies, a light flickers in the darkened sound booth while she is overhearing the conversation. Did anyone see her? It appears later that someone did, and now she is a target and on the run.
Soon, it becomes very clear that Silvia has more interest in Zuwanie that just overhearing an assassination plot. In one of the script's more interesting concepts, Silvia actually has a vented up hatred for Zuwanie as she feels that it was him that directly lead to her family’s end. Clearly, Silvia could really care less if Zuwanie was assassinated, and his upcoming trip to the UN to make a plea for himself against human rights violations would be the most logical place for it to happen. However, the fact that she knows about an impending plot makes her a risk in her own right. This is the fascinating take on a plot that has been told before. She’s a witness, so to speak, for the details of a possible assignation attempt of a man she inwardly despises. However, she is not striving to save Zuwanie’s skin as much as her own. She did, at one point, hail Zuwanie as a liberator and stood by him, but as the atrocities mounted, her disillusionment led to anger and hostility towards him.
Needless to say, Silvia reports the threat the next day. Enter Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) the Secret Service agent that is called in to investigate her. Tobin, the poster boy for brooding and grizzled cynicism, finds her story incredulous and has a hard time believing her. Why? Firstly, Tobin is on shaky footing on his own (his wife died weeks previously and he has been hitting the bottle a lot) not to mention that Silvia’s colourful past in Africa as a political opponent of Zuwanie just seems fishy to the veteran agent. Clearly, if you were the harshest of critics towards a political figure, blamed him for your family’s (and country’s) demise, then why would you be forthcoming with information that could save his life? I loved the way the dialogue between the two in their early scenes together reflects their own inherent distrust and ambivalence with one another. It’s a smart and edgy verbal cat n’ mouse game, and Pollack and the screenwriters know just how to play it. And then there is Penn and Kidman, who play off one another like two seasoned pros that have worked together for years.
The film further tantalizes us with the details of both Silvia’s life and the possible participants involved in the plot to assassinate Zuwanie. The film does drop many subtle hints on Silvia’s on involvement. Is she in on it or not? Tobin, at first, would like to think so, but as he grows to spend more time with her his initial misgivings regarding her trustworthiness subside into taken more seriously at her word. This trust paves the way towards a protector role for Tobin, and he willfully does this, even as the plot spirals into darkly complicated territory and her sorted past grows to haunt him. He trusts her, but still feels that she is not telling him everything and by doing this she is placing both if them in danger.
As thrillers go, THE INTERPRETER is a thickly layered film with plenty of intrigue that is fairly balanced and well crafted. The film’s key strengths are just how much credence it gives the whole proceedings. By placing the film in the UN and by actually shooting in the UN (this is the first film ever to be granted permission to shoot there), we sort of have a outsider’s look into the world of political maneuvering, posturing, double takes and back stabs, and for these reasons THE INTERPRETER is memorable, sleek, and polished. The settings ring true, even the fictitious African country of Matobo, which despite the fact that it is a country that is completely fabricated, the film does an exemplary job of making us feel that it is a real nation with real strife. Much is dealt with in terms of Zuwanie and his dealing with his enemies in the country. Yes, he started off as a pleasant ruler who’s own paranoia and zeal for power created an animosity towards those he opposed and when he went to war with them, innocents were killed in the process. On these levels, I liked the whole setup and overall dynamic of the film and was fascinated by how the plight of Silvia is unalterably linked to Zuwanie.
Nicole Kidman, arguably one the finest actress working today, creates yet another believable character in Silvia. Her character could have degenerated into a one-dimensional damsel in distress that serves as a love interest to fill the recent void in Tobin’s life. The finer thing about the film is that Pollack places no romantic chemistry or stock in the two characters. They are opposites that don’t attract and despite the fact that they distrust one another they begrudgingly work together for the common good. This is not one of Kidman’s more glamorous roles. She digs deep into her character and gets to her core and the result is a performance of subtlety and conviction. I was less impressed with Sean Penn in the film. His work as Tobin was adequate and there is no doubt that he gives the character the right aura of depressed anger and drunken sullenness (uh…no stretch for Penn). His character is a grab bag of clichés, to be sure, but at least Penn works with what he is given and his individual scenes with Kidman shine. The only week moment between the two occurs directly at the end of the film in closing moments that felt artificial and forced.
THE INTERPRETER remains a thriller that is competent, compelling, and well directed and acted. The film may be a bit overly long in terms of its exposition (its first 60-70 minutes are primarily setup) and there are enough narrative loopholes that bend credibility to a degree (the third act sort of builds more tension and action that makes you forgive the story’s weaknesses). Yet, at the top of it all is Pollack, who still knows how to make a well-crafted and effective old-school thriller that are not made in abundance anymore. You know, the ones that place stock in its characters, performances, and mood more than in car chases, shootouts, and explosions (although one scene on a bus encapsulates much of this, but is done on a much more satisfying – and creepy – level). Despite a few of my slight misgivings, THE INTERPRETER still remains a smart, involving, and skilful political thriller that creates a world of conspiracy and does so with a surprising amount of authenticity.