Kidman and Penn are the main event in ‘The Interpreter’
In the mid-’70s political thrillers ruled the cinema. In their heyday, films like “Three Days of the Condor,” “All the President’s Men” and “Day of the Jackal” were critical and popular favorites and featured some of the finest actors of their day.
Today’s political thrillers are few and far between and even those that surface — think “The Bourne Supremacy” — are more about car crashes, bombs blasting, and shaky handheld cameras than about international intrigue. (It’s worth noting that “The Bourne Identity” did have an old school feel to it.)
So along comes director Sydney Pollack who resurrects the formula that made his “Condor” successful. He wisely selects two of the finest actors working today, Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman, and while taking advantage of heretofore unparalleled access to the United Nations, sets the stage for a modern day thriller with retro stylistic inclinations.
This is more of a gamble than one might expect. But a solid screenplay that eschews the need to blow up something every few minutes to keep the audience’s attention succeeds because it focuses on a lost art of cinema: Character development.
Kidman plays Silvia Broome, a U.N. interpreter and native of fictional African nation Matobo. One night, she overhears a discussion about what appears to be a conspiracy to assassinate the country’s tyrannical president during a forthcoming speech before the General Assembly.
Secret Service agent Tobin Keller (Penn) is sent to question Broome and take her into protective custody, though he immediately doubts her story after he learns of her rebellious political history.
For reasons that shouldn’t be detailed here, both individuals are damaged and emotionally raw, and the film’s primary goal is to explore their relationship. Not in an erotic way (amazing as it may sound, yes it’s THAT old school), but as two professionals trying to do their job despite their internal pain. The cat-and-mouse interplay is more psychological here than physical, although the film has several near misses and one nailbiter of a bus scene that is textbook suspense, if not particularly original.
For all his critical success, Penn remains a bit of a mystery to the average filmgoer, having chosen smaller or edgier films to showcase his legendary intensity (“Mystic River,” “21 Grams” “The Weight of Water”). If you don’t yet appreciate his gift, watch him carefully here as he brings complexity and authenticity to a character that is anything but standard-issue good cop.
It’s good to see Kidman in a role that is more grounded than some of her recent eccentric or period piece characters. Though the two rarely laugh or even smile when engaged, they seem to find solace in each other’s company. And while the film is conversation-heavy, it is never less than compelling. As Pollack did in “The Firm,” he mounts the tension as more facts are revealed. Yes, the plot is a little convoluted, but the film never insults the intelligence or uses its complexity to hide a lack of substance.
“The Interpreter” is not loud or fast-paced. It’s an adult film that is a throwback to a time when that term provoked a meaning beyond its current sordid interpretation.
Rated PG-13 for violence, profanity and sexual content.