A genuine international thriller set almost entirely in New York City in and around the United Nations, “The Interpreter” is coolly absorbing without being pulse-quickening. A return by director Sydney Pollack, after the misfires of “Sabrina” and “Random Hearts,” to the twisty suspense terrain of “Three Days of the Condor,” the film is plot-heavy and superficially suffers from a lack of chemistry between Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn that is not inconsistent with their characters’ interactions. Commercial prospects look reasonable rather than rousing.
No film, not even Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” has ever been given permission to shoot at U.N. headquarters before (it reportedly took a personal meeting between Pollack and Kofi Annan to clinch the deal), and “The Interpreter” takes outstanding, but unostentatious, advantage of its opportunity to show off the nearly 60-year-old building in all its modernist splendor. The most recognizable room, the General Assembly, is also where the most decisive and extensive action takes place, but good use is also made of the Security Council, lobby, private rooms and outdoor courtyards as completely fresh locations for narrative drama.
The story, concocted by two scribes and fleshed out by three more, does not lack for contemporary relevance, even as it transplants the conflicts of a far-away region to America’s doorstep. On balance, the structural machinations drive the characters, although its political orientation is liberally well-intended to highlight the plight of those — in this case Africans — suffering under murderous dictatorial regimes.
In a country one could be excused for imagining is Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe but is called Matobo, a five-minute pre-credits sequence has a white observer being shown dozens of rotting corpses at a dusty soccer stadium before being blown away by a pubescent boy with a very large gun. The man’s photographer friend, waiting in a car, grabs a few pictures before escaping with his life.
It’s an hour before we see the friend again or are led to hope we might learn what happened at the arena.
In the meantime, the pic takes up the life of U.N. translator Silvia Broome (Kidman), one of whose languages happens to be Ku; it’s the dialect (concocted for the film) spoken in Matobo, where Silvia was raised. On an evening after a precautionary General Assembly evacuation, Silvia overhears a barely audible whisper in Ku threatening death to the Teacher, the nickname of Dr. Zuwanie, the genocidal longtime leader of Matobo, due to address the U.N. in a few days.
Brought in to assess Silvia’s trustworthiness is Secret Service agent Tobin Keller (Penn), a heavy-hooded fellow morose over his wife recently having flown the coop. Quickly pegging Silvia as a liar, Tobin has a number of measured, testy talks with the translator, who speaks with an accent that’s British by way of southern Africa and is more easily rattled than most heroines in this era of self-assured bigscreen female role models.
Clearly, there is more than so agreeably meets the eye where the silky blonde Silvia is concerned, and it’s little surprise that with her, as well as with nearly all the supporting characters, all roads lead back to Matobo and the nasty things that happened there. While Tobin, his world-weary associate Dot (Catherine Keener) and other feds peer into Silvia’s apartment through binoculars and follow her all over New York, a number of other suspicious characters are shuffled into the mix, including Nils Lud (Jesper Christensen), Zuwanie’s white security specialist; Kuman-Kuman (the vibrant George Harris), a Gotham-based opposition leader to Zuwanie; Jean Gamba (Byron Utley), a dangerous provocateur of mysterious allegiances, and Philippe (Yvan Attal), the photographer who can’t cope with what went down at the soccer stadium but who brings some key information to the table.
Due to Silvia’s hypertension and Tobin’s mournful demeanor, the characters’ dialogue exchanges have a hushed, tight-reined quality that keeps the proceedings at a relatively low temperature. With different casting, a romantic/erotic undercurrent might have been established between these two highly pressured individuals, which, without bubbling over, would still have given the drama an extra charge.
As enacted by Kidman and Penn, Silvia and Tobin seem like people who never would have gotten together under any circumstances. They’re essentially opposites, and ones that don’t attract. This fits all right with the story, but may frustrate general viewers on basic movie-movie terms.
Pollack nicely pulls off the two big set pieces, first a long, tense scene aboard a bus in Brooklyn that ends in shocking violence, then the assassination attempt on Zuwanie at the General Assembly indicated at the outset. A follow-up sequence is significantly marred dramatically when a central figure is unaccountably left alone and unprotected, and wrap-up is mealy-mouthed.
As always, Pollack’s polished professionalism reps a significant pleasure in itself, and the presence of the U.N. front-and-center is a spectacle to behold. Darius Khondji’s splendid widescreen lensing and Jon Hutman’s production design are major bonuses, whereas James Newton Howard’s score is too on-the-money in its emphasis on would-be suspense.
Her hair like corn threads and her skin the color of the moon, Kidman looks more youthful than she has in her last few pictures, and more fragile. Her seeming mastery of the invented Ku language (not to mention French) is duly impressive. Penn’s usual volatility is suppressed as much as it’s ever been.
Supporting cast members uniformly succeed in the important task of etching strong impressions so one can more or less remember who’s who when multiple foreign names are rapidly rattled off. Earl Cameron, who portrays the reviled Dr. Zuwanie, may be remembered by buffs from his appearance 40 years ago in James Bond pic “Thunderball.”