The Interpreter

The Interpreter


Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

I am not sure what's worse, a well-intentioned inept thriller, or an occasionally engaging thriller with a rotten moral core, like 2004's disappointing Man On Fire. The Interpreter is a fine example of the former, and has the distinct dishonour of being the first film allowed access to the United Nations; an act that on the quality of this movie may be revoked for future film-makers. (The shot of the building in Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest was done secretly, and the rest done in pleasingly false matte-painting mock-ups.) Admittedly, director Sydney Pollack treats it well, with plenty of well-photographed scenes inside and out, with oodles of helicopter shots of the city showcasing DP Darius Khonji's skill for using natural light for atmosphere. The impressive interior of the building lacks anything other than a neat novelty, all those grandiose walls and gentle stair steps.

An imaginary republic of Matobo, with an obvious leaning to recent real-life genocide, wishes to have its leader President Edmund Zuwanie speak at the UN, to persuade the world its acts were in self-defence against terrorists. Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) is an interpreter for his republic's tribal language, Ku - or is it Koo - who believes the UN is the "last and best hope" for the people of the world? Through compassion and discussion, using the interpreters as the direct intermediates, we solve our problems. Anyway, in a plot development that Hitchcock would have liked, Silvia overhears a plot - spoken in Ku and on the floor of the UN, with hundreds of microphones - to assassinate the president.

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Therefore, Silvia could be in danger, and the leader in danger, too. This alerts the FBI, CIA and other branches of various governments, some with doubt and others with mild distaste. They assign Secret Service agent, Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) to investigate.

Through this idiom of precise language use, Kidman creates her character. A loner, a focused and characteristically intense, driven woman, with her swiftly sliced open dark past pouring out feeding the audience and the sceptical Keller dribble by dribble. The film jerks us about by our characteristic feelings towards and against her. Is Sylvia holding out on us? Yep, about five times over.

Indeed, following the film's fickle plot, we learn telegraphing of the film's major character and event twists well ahead of time. A good example being a three-way cross pursuit of suspects, converging into an obvious and avoidable disaster - if the agents involved were in any way as smart as it's audience, of course. It is a well-delivered scene, suitably tense and well acted, but I just cannot buy it. Especially since the intelligence agencies involved are so... stupid! In addition, a clean room to keep Zuwanie safe is not checked thoroughly before its use in the climax. All these contrivances - there are others - prevent me from buying into the seriousness of the film, since the film-makers cannot do so themselves.

It is, ironically, the use of language that gives this pumped up thriller some delusion of grandeur, in that at least three writers share credit on the screenplay. Their own different writing takes and styles make a hodgepodge of tone, being as schizophrenic as the revealed story. Also, the film crosses up its editing, to counterpoint how alike and different Sylvia and Tobin are, we hear his words - the camera stays on her face - but they are in different places.

A stylistic cinema choice like this only serves to draw attention to itself, rather than the characters and their work. The solemnity of the actors' admittedly fine performances cannot hide the shallowness of the story, nor does it make their characters or the contrived events any more believable. Wait until you hear the story of Penn's wife, it is without doubt one of the most ineptly written revelations I have heard in some time. "Great dancer, terrible driver" - OUCH...

The film's editing during conversations nearly rivals Michael Bay, always cutting away to the person speaking. Reactions are as important to absorb in drama as well-done dialogue delivery, and eventually Pollack learns this, as the two wounded characters try to comfort each other. It is in these precious moments where the film works well, but is equally sensible to assure us the comfort can only be temporary.

Pollack's continuous employment of obvious double bluff and frequent magician's tricks of misdirection become tiring after about the fifth time, without anything fresh to show for it. After all this poker-faced, thrill-less baloney, the film treats us to a nauseatingly saccharine coda. This ending has the smell of cheap closure. Am I wrong for expecting some substance, or should I treat it as a piece of formula writing without the wit of Hitchcock?

The film insulted me; it expects us to have fallen for the film's surface gloss. The Interpreter lacks an emotional truth, a keen edge to the material that would lend these grand surroundings some real weight. Instead of being exposed for what they are - grand and oh-so-serious surroundings within which we hang a poorly realised hack-thriller.

Reviewed on: 20 Mar 2007
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The Interpreter packshot
A political thriller at the UN headquarters in New York.
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Read more The Interpreter reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray ****1/2
Josh Morrall ***

Director: Sydney Pollack

Writer: Charles Randolph, Scott Frank, Steven Zaillian

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener, Jesper Christensen, Yvan Attal, Earl Cameron, George Harris, Michael Wright, Clyde Kusatsu, Eric Keenleyside, Hugo Speer

Year: 2005

Runtime: 128 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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