Sunday, April 24, 2005

"The Interpreter": Starring the U.N. Like You've Never Seen It


directed by Sydney Pollack
starring Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener

There are three main characters in “The Interpreter.” One, of course, is the titular translator played by Nicole Kidman. The second is the Secret Service agent played by Sean Penn. The third is the United Nations, starring as itself—sort of. Director Sydney Pollack reportedly moved heaven and earth to shoot the film on location, and the finished product completely obviates any fears that previously kept those doors closed to Hollywood. Trust me, the U.N. never looked so good. Its gracious, lofty-ceilinged interiors buzz with activity and discourse that has the smack of Very Important Things. At the same time, they exude the kind of august dignity that, in dramatic motion pictures, is usually reserved for courtrooms—or the White House.

But of course it’s Kidman who puts the face of glamour on Global Organization Number One as the impossibly blond, impossibly willowy and chiselled-featured Silvia Broome, a U.N. interpreter who professes to believe in everything her employer stands for—peace, justice, human rights, and accountability for violations thereof. Everything, in short, that her country of origin—the fictitious African nation of Matobo—is not. As scripted, Silvia’s imaginary motherland bears some resemblance to Zimbabwe and some to the Congo-formerly-known-as-Zaire, but is really meant to represent a kind of Every-Africa. Torn by unspeakable violence and deadly civil strife, Matobo is headed by a president who embodies its deeply fractured identity: Dr. Zuwanie, a one-time enlightened revolutionary hero turned ruthless oppressor, is being called on the carpet (that is, the floor of the U.N. General Assembly) for suspected ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity.

If you’ve seen the ubiquitous trailer, you already know everything you need to know about the plot. One night after hours at ye olde U.N., Silvia overhears a fragment of a conversation in Ku, the native dialect of Matobo (specially created by a linguist for the movie), hinting at a possible assassination plot against the reviled Zuwanie. She reports the incident to her superiors, who in turn page Secret Service—specifically, the “Foreign Dignitary Protection” wing—to assess the credibility of the threat. Enter Penn as sad-eyed Agent Keller, along with his partner, sharp-eyed Agent Woods (an underutilized Catherine Keener). Keller is melancholie (in the full Elizabethan sense) because he’s just suffered a devastating personal tragedy. But his knee-jerk skepticism remains unsoftened, especially as he digs deeper into Silvia’s checkered history and finds it littered with anti-Zuwanie memorabilia. At the same time, he finds himself increasingly emotionally drawn to her and frustrated by her persistent guardedness.

The two leads command the screen without competing for it, and have a believably prickly, understated chemistry that almost makes up for certain unbelievable aspects to their individual characters—especially Penn’s. Keller’s back story gives the actor an excuse to emote, which he at least does with restraint (for Penn), but one has to wonder in what alternate universe the Secret Service would put a man back on the job who was so obviously still in the throes of clinical depression. Kidman, for her part, projects a brittle, watchful composure that comports well with the character of a woman still haunted by ghosts of her not-too-distant past. Some viewers will no doubt fault the film for focusing the plight of postcolonial Africa through the lens of a whiter-than-white expatriated settlor. Still, as Hollywood appropriations go, this one’s less obnoxious than most—and to the extent that Kidman’s star power gets audiences into a theater and thinking about global problems of the non-“XXX” variety, I count that a plus. In fact, in that respect one could argue the movie has more social utilitarian value than the best documentary or news report on Darfur that no one sees.

As a thriller, however, “The Interpreter” ends up being workmanlike rather than inspired. As a suspense director, Pollack’s an old hand of the old school, and he slowly ratchets up the tension in a deliberately plotted style that’s more reminiscent of “The Firm” than—well, I haven’t seen “The China Syndrome,” so let’s say last summer’s flawed but effectively creepy Jonathan Demme remake of “The Manchurian Candidate.” There’s a pivotal four-way confrontation on a bus that’s crisp and surefooted, and a couple of jumpy sequences that take place in Silvia’s apartment. The actual climax, however, is something of a letdown. Yes, there’s a twist, and no, it’s not a particularly impressive one. In fact, it’s so limp I didn’t even bother to try to figure out if it actually added up logically. Suffice to say the U.N. comes out untainted, which is more than one can say about its real-life counterpart.

Which brings me back to the point I started with: the real star of “The Interpreter” is the U.N. It’s more than a backdrop—it’s an almost archaic symbol of hope that remains virtually undimmed by the jaded cynicism that hangs about it today. In the entire film, there’s not a breath or whisper of corruption, at least of the internal variety. All the corruption comes from outside its walls, which ultimately remain unbreached. The top brass might have been nervous about letting Pollack inside them, but they didn’t need to worry. What they got was the best P.R. that money can’t buy: an earnest, unironic tribute to the ideals of the U.N. from someone who, at some level, clearly still believes in them.

RATING: ** 1/2


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