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
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
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.
~~ Jules Brenner