Trying to ooze political intrigue, The Interpreter--a film about a United Nations linguist who overhears an assassination plot--instead comes dangerously close to being a giant snore-fest. Powered by commanding performances from its leads, however, it manages to perk up in parts.
To Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), the U.N. represents a chance for world peace and diplomacy. She should know: she works there as an interpreter and sees how the power-brokering halls of the U.N. avert global crises daily. Her world is turned upside down, however, when she overhears a death threat against an African head of state, who is coming to the U.S. to deliver an important address. Suddenly, Silvia becomes a hunted target of the killers and is placed under the protection of Secret Service agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn). But Tobin believes Silvia is hiding something--and he's absolutely right. Turns out Silvia has an extremely personal interest vested in the assassination threat. She was raised in the small, African country the dignitary hails from and witnessed firsthand how, under his malevolent rule, her beloved country turned into genocidal ruin. Uh-oh. Now, linked irrevocably to the assassination plot, Silvia must find a way to elude Tobin, playing out a gripping dance of evasion and revelation that keeps them both guessing as they race to stop a terrifying international crisis before it's too late. Wake me up when it's all over.
It's a testament to actors who can carry a film through its own muck. Although Kidman tackles yet another strange accent--Meryl Streep, eat your heart out--and Penn once again broods with the best of them, they create The Interpreter's best moments as Silvia and Tobin. Silvia obviously has had a very dark and painful past, losing almost everyone who ever meant anything to her, and plays the little game of I'm-not-going-to-tell-you-everything-I-know succinctly. But she believes in peace, and uses her skill with words, diplomacy and the subtleties of meaning to get her point across. On the other hand, Tobin, who is also dealing with personal tragedy, is all about instinct, action and reading into the most primal human behaviors. But as their relationship deepens--refreshingly, not in a sexual way--the two end up learning from each other. In the supporting roles, the always-sardonic Catherine Keener does a nice bit as Tobin's partner (but I wish she'd do something as great as Being John Malkovich again). Briton Earl Cameron also gives a rather layered performance, for the short time he is on screen, as the once-great-turned-evil dictator whose life is threatened even as he is about to face charges of genocide.
Besides Kidman and Penn, The Interpreter also has the distinctive talents of veteran director Sydney Pollack to back it up. No stranger to movies with twisty conspiracies, having directed Three Days of the Condor, Absence of Malice and The Firm, Pollack understands how to zero in on the quiet moments and slowly build tension. Unfortunately, The Interpreter just can't sustain that tension. Except for a few scenes--especially one involving a bus, the would-be assassin and the potential victim--you never feel any real danger. And the woes of the film's fictional African country aren't anything we haven't seen before. Rent Hotel Rwanda if you want the real deal. No, The Interpreter's biggest selling point is the fact it was the first time film cameras were allowed inside the inner sanctum of the United Nations. Alfred Hitchcock was rejected back when he was making North by Northwest, but Pollack finagled his way in. It is certainly an impressive place. With the rows and rows of foreign diplomats in the General Assembly and the sound proof booths where the highly trained, language-savvy interpreters make sure the speeches by world leaders aren't misunderstood, it aptly shows the pressures of today's political climate. But it doesn't necessarily incite suspense or political intrigue.
Despite strong performances from Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, The Interpreter unfortunately doesn't quite translate into a compelling sociopolitical thriller.