The Interpreter Review

Nicole Kidman plays a United Nations interpreter whose life is put in danger when she overhears an assassination plot. Sean Penn plays the US secret service agent assigned to investigate her story. Director Sydney Pollack returns to the thriller genre with this glossy suspense piece. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.

Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) works as an interpreter at the United Nations building in New York. Her speciality is African languages. One evening, returning to the building to collect some belongings, she accidentally overhears men plotting to assassinate President Zuwanie, the dictator of the (fictional) African country of Matobo. She is spotted and, the next day, someone apparently tries to run her down.

Secret service agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) is assigned to investigate Silvia’s claims. He is initially sceptical that one of the few people in New York fluent in an obscure African dialect should just happen to have overheard a critical conversation spoken in it. When he looks into Silvia’s background, Keller discovers more cause for suspicion. Silvia herself is a native of Matobo – her father was a white African and her mother English. Her family were politically liberal and supported the president when he came to power on an anti-colonial platform. Since Zuwamie turned despot, Silvia has suffered personally at his hands and she’s been involved with outlawed opposition groups. In short, no one has more reason to want Zuwamie dead than her.

The Interpreter is a more ambitious film than most Hollywood productions. It means to be a slick, suspenseful thriller on one hand and a parable about modern Africa on the other. In both of its aims, it’s only partially successful.

As a thriller, it works in fits and starts. Director Sydney Pollack, who made Three Days Of The Condor and The Firm, knows how to create tension. The script gives him several well-conceived (if unoriginal) thriller set-pieces and Pollack pulls them off nicely. The standout is a lengthy sequence involving an assassin on a bus, which is real, white-knuckle stuff. The climactic attempt to stop a killer also works much better than it ought to, given how many plot holes it contains. For a start, why is there no security presence where the killer is – in the most obvious hiding place of all?

Between these action scenes however, the film is a bit of a bore. It’s punishingly overlong, a familiar flaw of Pollack’s work, the characters don’t have enough depth for us to care about them and the script is given to pomposity. Characters make speeches – a lot of speeches – and in some cases the people they’ve lectured later repeat their words back to show how they’ve learned. The film’s points are sometimes worthy ones but they could have been made with more subtlety and less sanctimony.

One of these speeches is so bizarre, it deserves comment. It’s Silvia’s monologue about the Ku people and how they deal with murder: a year after the death, the killer is tied up and thrown into a lake and it’s the responsibility of the victim’s family to either dive in and save him or let him drown. Apparently most families save him because the act of saving a life takes away their grief – or something. I guess we’re supposed to marvel at the simple wisdom of these tribal folk but I wondered, what happens if the family aren’t trained lifeguards? Saving a bound man from drowning in a lake isn’t an easy thing to do. If the killer weighs twenty stone, he’s more or less fucked.

Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman are both very talented and watchable actors and many will be keen to see them on the screen together. However, casting them as such morose characters in such a grim story kills any chance The Interpreter has of working as a good, old-fashioned star vehicle. There’s no room in this film for romance, flirtation or sexual chemistry – or humour for that matter. Sure, the subject matter is serious but the glumness is overdone. It makes sense for Nicole Kidman’s character to be distraught but giving Penn his own personal tragedy seems gratuitous. Both actors appear to be on the brink of tears for most of the film.

Penn is lumbered with such an underwritten role that he falls back on annoying method acting mannerisms that I haven’t seen him use for years. It’s a far cry from his brilliant work in The Assassination Of Richard Nixon, which is also now showing in cinemas. Penn’s done so much good work lately that it’s easy to forgive him one lapse but you have to wonder what attracted him to the project, given his scorn for the Hollywood mainstream? An even more perplexing question is what Catherine Keener, one of America’s best actresses, is doing in a thankless supporting role as Penn’s partner.

If The Interpreter doesn’t work as a starry thriller, as Hollywood’s latest attempt to bring Africa’s problems to the screen it’s even more problematic. The subject here is Zimbabwe. Maboto is obviously intended to be the beleaguered former British colony and President Zuwanie is clearly based on Robert Mugabe, the revolutionary leader who swept to power by kicking out the country’s white rulers and then turned out to be far more monstrous than the colonialists he replaced.

It’s laudible to see a major film tackling such a thorny subject and The Interpreter is not without intelligence and insight. However, it is still first and foremost a commercial action thriller and its politics take a backseat to the chases, shoot-outs and explosions the audience paid to see. That being the case, it’s uncomfortable to see genocide used as an exotic backdrop for such a film. Not that The Interpreter sinks to the level of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or Charlotte Gray, which used war atrocities to spice up tacky romances. At least this film treats its subject with the gravity it deserves.

The casting of Nicole Kidman as Silvia is a crucial mistake. My reading the film is that Silvia is supposed to represent the African people. Her family was involved in the fight for independence from white rule, her parents fell victim to a black dictator and Silvia herself is torn between her belief in peaceful change and the temptation to make her own justice with a gun. This is indeed a fair metaphor for the experiences of many Africans but wouldn’t the point be made much more effectively if Silvia were black?

Making her white complicates the issue. The film has to keep referring to her colour and explaining what bearing it has on her family’s politics, her involvement with certain causes and her affair with an African political leader, which ended because of “the politics of her skin”. Had Silvia been black, no explanations would be necessary.

I don’t mean to be politically correct, I’m analysing the film based on the story it wants to tell and the message it’s trying to get across and I believe that having a white heroine works against the movie. If you want an example of political correctness, how about making one of the chief villains white, just so all the bad guys don’t have dark skin? When he’s revealed, ask yourself if a white man could realistically get that job. The movie also tries ill-advisedly to humanise President Zuwanie in a climactic scene. His portrayal is unconvincing and completely at odds with what we’ve learned about the character. In real life, men like Mugabe aren’t shamed quite so easily.

Kevin O'Reilly

Updated: Apr 20, 2005

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