Cinema Signal:

Becoming a Translator:
An Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Translation

. "The Interpreter"

The pleasure I derived from this political thriller is in its integrity to realistic behavior and logical development. It builds taut suspense out of an ability to tie us to its characters as they grapple with the dangers of frightful political realities--both personal and global. Its coincidences may be forgiven on the basis of dramatic need. Interiors of the actual U.N. building are used as a set for the first time, adding immense authenticity to the international intrigue.

Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), a native African with a mastery of languages and, in particular, Ku (a fictional combination of Swahili and Shona), is called upon to do the translation for the representatives of the fictional African country of Matobo, whose archetype dictator Edmund Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), aka, "The Teacher" because of his founding philosophies, is scheduled to arrive in three days for a speech to defend his record of brutality and savagery before the full U.N. membership.

Of course, the translater does her job. What's not known (until later) is her particular interest in Zuwanie because of her pre-U.N. role as an active Matobo dissident who lost her parents in one of his many purges. Be that as it may, an unplanned evacuation of the building causes her to leave her shoulder bag in her office, which overlooks the floor of the General Assembly. Returning later that night, and thinking she's entirely alone in the building, she's shocked to overhear a conversation on an open audio line. It's in her native Ku. "The Teacher will never leave this room alive," a man whispers.

Shocked and incredulous, she waits until the next morning to report it, turning the institution into a maelstrom of suspicion, fear and security activity. Taking over the case are Federal Agents Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) and his smartly attired partner Dot Woods (Catherine Keener). Keller, while suffering from the loss of his wife in an accident two weeks before, buries his grief in his work as he interviews Broome and concludes she's probably lying. His job is to find out why.

South African security chief, Nils Lud (Jesper Christensen), joins Keller and Woods' investigation, which exposes Broome's background but leaves the result of her lie detector session "indeterminate but probably truthful." Later, alone in her modest apartment, Broome is jolted by the sudden appearance of a masked intruder outside her apartment window, causing Keller to take her story about overhearing a threat on Zuwanie's life seriously. A stronger regard for her isn't far behind.

The development of this relationship is a tight rope, maneuvering between suspicion and attraction. The guarded nature of it hovers over and around a romantic potential that the team of writers made as unapproachable as a minefield. Nevertheless, it's the core of the movie's emotional content and given considerable tension and complex textures by these two capable actors. Their ability to juggle mutual gravitation while tracking down the participants in the assassination plot is almost enough to counteract several leaps of logic and coincidence in the plotline. Their discussion about how one may deal with bloody rulers and effect reform is the film's political agenda.

Kidman, as far as my ear goes, absorbs all aspects of her role, down to the musical lyric of her Afrikaans-like dialect, her fluency in Ku and the nerdy modesty of an intellectual loner. As if, but it's fun to watch. Penn's character hook is his balancing at the edges of depression, an emotional baseline that he mines for his needed measure of human complexity. Keener is the firm, dependable backup (with the sole laugh line), a model of quiet support, mostly out of the way.

In one extraordinary sequence, two of Keller's agents, separately following Broome as she rushes to a rendezvous, and a prime suspect carrying a shoulder bag, come together with the South African dissident leader Kuman-Kuman (George Harris) at a bus stop. All of them then board the bus. Keller, in phone contact with his men, suspects something terrible is about to take place and plunges through traffic to get to the bus to head off disaster.

Literary credits (and blame) go to screenwriters Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steven Zailian from a story by Martin Stellman and Brian Ward (writing team on "Shoebox Zoo" TV series), under director Sydney Pollack's tasteful sensibilities. At its best, their movie generates more genuine suspense than I've seen in my last four horror films, and the only ghosts are government employees. But, one wonders why they gave Keller such a limited emotional potential. Why squander the romantic chemistry that Penn and Kidman so skillfully generate when the consummation of it might have made the film richer, more satisfying and, possibly, the hit that it tries hard to be? The poignancy in the couple's disappointing destiny seems unnaturally imposed and may account for some of the critical panning it's received.

Despite that arguable misjudgement, Pollack adds another notch to his belt of thoughtful stories that appeal to the tastes of mature audiences. "The Interpreter" takes its place besides such work as "The Firm," "Out of Africa" and, especially, "Three Days of the Condor." Pollack is a director who can be counted on -- if not for a success every time out -- for a satisfying standard of intelligent dramatic depth with literary savvy.

Darius Khondji takes advantage of his singular visual opportunity on a site never before used for filming with cinematography that makes the multi-territorial setting a virtual character in the story.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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