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The Interpreter   B-

Universal Pictures / Working Title Films

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Sydney Pollack
Writers: Charles Randolph, Scott Frank, Steven Zaillian
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener, Jesper Christensen, Yvan Attal, Earl Cameron, George Harris.

Review by Rob Vaux

What constitutes the "smart" in smart thrillers? Is it just the way they're put together (the mechanistic qualities like plot structure and narrative pacing) or is there something more substantive that they address -- a thoughtful approach to a complicated subject, perhaps, or characters whose behavior resembles that of actual human beings? The smartest thrillers arguably do both, marrying brilliant storytelling to topics that don't insult our intelligence. They're well-crafted without drawing attention to the fact, and reap the benefits by truly thrilling us, instead of just catching us off-guard. The Interpreter certainly thinks it's in that class, pushing our suspense buttons to the maximum while cloaking its twists in the veneer of Very Important Things. But like much of director Sydney Pollack's work, its brilliance is more compositional than soulful. It's nicely built around a well-oiled conspiracy plot and features a big movie-star role for Nicole Kidman and a meaty thespian role for Sean Penn, but it never involves us on anything more than a superficial level.

Thankfully, with work this polished, just taking it at face value is enough. It tackles a great subject in the United Nations, and acquits itself respectably if not amazingly. The film's conspiracy involves the planned assassination of an African dictator (Earl Cameron), once a hero to his people but now slipping into a morass of terror and genocide. When white African interpreter Sylvia Broome (Kidman) overhears two of the conspirators on her earphones at the UN, she becomes a potential target. But her involvement may be more than coincidental; she hails from the same country as the dictator and her past has links to both him and his political opponents. The pain of memory precludes her from sharing any details, even as those hoping to stop the conspiracy grill her for what she knows. Foremost among them is Secret Service agent Tobin Keller (Penn), who dislikes her evasiveness and has wounds of his own to heal, but understands that she's key to preventing a public and very messy assassination.

The Interpreter largely does right by its lead characters thanks to their not-quite-adversarial differences and a willingness to eschew the expected romance (save for one brief moment that can easily be forgiven). Broome, who makes her living on the vagaries of language, is eternally on guard against Keller's blunt probing, and their interplay is among the film's strong points (though Penn fares better than Kidman, who has a tricky accent through which to slalom). To it, The Interpreter adds a decent sense of excitement, mostly on the nuts-and-bolts level (watch for a doozy of a scene involving a city bus), which it supports with just the right amount of plot exposition. The film's various complexities are spelled out well, keeping confusion to a minimum, and the use of the actual UN building in New York is a quiet coup that Pollack exploits to the fullest.

Those assets, however, are constantly dogged by a sense of undue artifice holding the viewer at arm's length. The Interpreter strives for innate realism in its construction, which is never entirely convincing and which clashes with characters and incidents that couldn't exist anywhere but the movies (the handy stakeout apartment right across the street, for example, or the supposedly tight security that conveniently allows a key villain to slip through). The climax contains a pair of nice twists, but also falls back on the classic stereotypes of confrontation that too many earlier thrillers have used. Perhaps most distressingly, the real-life issues -- which the film wields with admitted aplomb -- feel as if they're only present to juice up the plot. Their superficiality is perhaps inevitable, but if you're going to tackle such material, you need to dig deeper than The Interpreter cares to.

On the other hand, superficiality can still be worthwhile if it's smartly presented, and Pollack knows what he's doing on that front. Nothing about the film feels out of place, and serious plot holes are nowhere to be seen. It keeps its sense of mystery intact, and the sharp pacing means that we still want to know how it comes out, though we might not care long after we leave the theater. It's hard to fault a film like that, even with far more cause than can be found here. The Interpreter is a serial underachiever, to be sure, but it still has enough brains to merit a passing grade.

Review published 04.21.2005.

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