African born Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), one of the many interpreters working at UN headquarters in New York, overhears whispered details of what appears to be an attempt to assassinate the autocratic Head of State Edmund Zuwanie (Earl Cameron) from the continent's oppressed Matobo, when he addresses the General Assembly. She advises the authorities and the dignitary protection team of recently widowed Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) and his professional partner (Catherine Keener) are sent in to find the assassin/s and avoid a terrible international political incident. Keller gets suspicious of Silvia, whose links to anti-Zuwanie activity begin to surface. The chase gets deadly and Keller looks set to fail as shadowy figures emerge behind the assassination plan - which is not what it seems.
Review by Louise Keller:
Sydney Pollack's new thriller The Interpreter is an engrossing film filled with tension and political resonance, and whose setting in the corridors of the neutrality of the United Nations offers an extra layer of complexity. Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn are two opposites who have both suffered a loss. Kidman's African-born UN translator Silvia Broome lives a mechanical life tempered by the loss of her youth, her family and the country she loves. Penn's federal agent Tobin Keller has recently lost his wife and is struggling to keep his emotions in check.
When they meet, it is clear there is little to connect them, least of all trust. She concentrates on voices, while he studies faces. She is secretive and evasive; he is blunt and confronting. From the moment Silvia picks up her things late at night in the deserted UN building and overhears a whispering voice, there is an air of ominous mystery. The light in her booth flashes on unexpectedly, and quickly she realises she has been seen and is a target. Keller tags her a liar from their first meeting, and wonders whether she has fabricated this death threat to Motabo's dictator President, Edmund Zuwanie (Earl Cameron). Is she really intent on quiet diplomacy, or does an unsatisfied rage burn within? While Motabo and its language of Ku are both fictional, the continuing unrest in Africa over recent decades is fuel enough to make the issues at the heart of the film very real.
Pollack establishes a sense of urgency throughout the film with its non-stop pace, emotional crescendos a throbbing soundtrack that seems to echo the pounding of our heart beats. Kidman reveals an inner sadness to her complex Silvia that both fascinates and mystifies, while Penn peels away the layers of his vulnerability. Kidman and Penn are terrific together, and we can feel the connection even through the venetian blinds of the windows of the building opposite, when Keller is keeping 24 hour watch. Catherine Keener makes her mark as the ultra-dry, nothing-will-phase-her agent Dot Woods, and Pollack himself plays a Secret Service Head of Department. All the international cast are excellent, and the United Nations setting (the first time ever a film has been shot here) adds weight and relevance.
The film spirals to a thrilling and satisfying conclusion, and never offers simple answers to unanswerable questions. The Truth Needs No Translation, says the tagline, and like a foreign language, The Interpreter is filled with nuance.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
You can always rely on Sydney Pollack's intelligence and his gifted filmmaking; his authority on screen as an actor is matched by his ability as a director to wrap a thriller around some serious material, so that we enjoy the action but there is something larger and important supporting it.
The Interpreter begins with subtle establishing scenes, carefully crafted and showing us just enough to capture our imagination without letting on too much detail. We see only glimpses of character as Silvia (Nicole Kidman) does her job - cool and professional linguist that she is. We are made sufficiently familiar with the physicality and atmosphere of the UN HQ, although this is where Pollack has to pay the price for being allowed to film in the building - a cinematic first. Of course he can't afford to bite the hand... and we see none of the underbelly of this organisation's wheeler dealing. We see only its noble front, and the film gives the credit to the UN for the humanitarian resolution. We wish it were so.
But setting aside the film's pissing in the UN's pocket (or is it showing the UN how it SHOULD behave?), it's an effective, and engaging work with both stars delivering terrific performances, using subtle twists to separate these characters from any they have created before. Sean Penn's characteristic inner turmoil is still there, displayed in his eye movements, his lips, his head tilting gently to one side. But there is also a deeper resonance to his Tobin, not only because he has just lost his wife in terrible circumstances, but because the subject matter is close to his political interests.
Nicole Kidman tackles Silvia with a strange little accent that defies identification but works to establish her as an outsider in New York. It's a fictional accent from her childhood upbringing in fictional Matobo gave her that, and it gave her all the other elements of her present personality that we discover piece by piece, as we learn of her family's fate and the role of dissenter that she once played. It's a difficult role, requiring subtle but constant evolution of the basic character in a way perhaps best described as reverse metamorphosis: she has to take Silvia on a psychological and political round trip, while retaining her sincerity, but Kidman nails it.
It's relatively easy to surmise that Matobo stands for Zimbabwe and Edward Zuwanie stands for Robert Mugabe. This helps push the film's political edge and gives the background its solemn roots in the real world. And makes this engaging film a weightier work as a result.
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INTERPRETER, THE (M)
CAST: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener, Jesper Christensen, George Harris, Byron Utley, Sydney Pollack, Yvan Attal, Earl Cameron
PRODUCER: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Kevin Misher
DIRECTOR: Sydney Pollack
SCRIPT: Charles Randolph, Scott Frank, Steven Zaillian
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Darius Khondji
EDITOR: William Steinkamp
MUSIC: James Newton Howard
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Jon Hutman
RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: UIP
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: April 14, 2005