Movie Review: The Interpreter

Nicole Kidman has a different accent in almost every one of her roles, so it's kind of fitting for her to end up at the United Nations in a film. She gets to throw a little bit of everything into her voice for this political thriller that is longer on explosions than on intrigue. Her character, Silvia Broome, is from a fictional African nation at war '- one of those postcolonial bastions that quickly turned into a corrupt killing field under Western protection '- so she's got a generic white African twang that has lilts of British, her native Australian and good old-fashioned Hollywood.

It might sound superficial to harp on her mishmash accent, but it's the only real mystery that director Sydney Pollack is able to eke out. The watered-down plot, written by Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian, was obviously retooled for a post-9/11 audience who still isn't ready to confront difficult questions. Pollack has taken much bigger risks and challenged his audiences a great deal in the past '- even Toostie broke ground. But here, he seems hampered by convention. To get into the UN to film '- a complete coup that came with reams of new tax incentives from New York state '- he had to have the personal permission of Kofi Annan and the blessing of Governor George Pataki. Nothing controversial was ever going to end up in this movie.

So instead, there's this strangely quiet translator with a slippery international past. After a bomb threat, she runs back into the office for her flute and happens to overhear a death threat against the leader of the African nation where she grew up '- in a dialect that only a handful of people in the US can understand. Said leader is on his way to New York to give a speech that he hopes will get him off the hook for genocide.

That gets the Secret Service involved, which brings in Sean Penn as Tobin Keller, a depressed agent who has just lost his wife '- first to her leaving him, and then to a car accident. Like most good-guy rebels in big-budget thrillers, he's got nothing to lose and just wants to get back to his job. A tenacious blonde bombshell victim and a rugged, emotionally tense hero... The script has already been written for that scenario a hundred times. And though Penn is, perhaps, the best actor of his generation, he merely fills these gumshoes without really inhabiting the part as he usually does.

Despite his solitary attitude, Keller isn't the only agent on the job. He's got a doting partner, Agent Dot Woods, played by Catherine Keener. Unfortunately, she's little more than a sidekick in sensible pantsuits. She gets to stand lookout, drive Keller home when he's upset and generally babysit the proceedings.

The United Nations is the real standout of the film. In its first starring role in a major motion picture, the building shines in all its disco-era glory. It seems open, airy and full of sunlight. In fact, the entire concept of the UN shines, with Broome making impassioned speeches about the value of quiet diplomacy over the clanging of armor, and the diplomats and international personnel scurrying about on the grounds of the complex, doing the glorious work of saving the world.

The story should aspire to such grandness. Pollack boils down the whole assassination plot to a lovers' quarrel. He never asks the hard questions, like, why has the UN been appeasing this African dictator for so long? Why are they allowing him to jet into the country and give a speech as a dignitary? Why are they letting him have sway in whether or not he gets tried for crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court at The Hague? Pollack has one veiled reference to the fact that the current US government doesn't even support the ICC, but he doesn't press the point.

This dictator is fictional, of course, but he is close enough in profile to existing dictators and potentates from around the globe. Pollack could have wrapped that into the story in some way, making this a true political thriller in the vein of Three Days of the Condor rather than Die Hard at the UN.


iVillage Mood Meter: Won't make your spine tingle, although you'll want to take that grade-school tour of the UN again


Stars: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener
Director: Sydney Pollack
Screenwriters: Charles Randolph, Scott Frank, Steven Zaillian
Producers: Sydney Pollack, Anthony Mingehella, G. Mac Brown
Release date: April 22, 2005
Rated: PG-13
Distributor: Universal

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