Film Score: James Newton Howard Cinematography: Darius Khondji
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Katherine Keener and Clyde Kusatsu
The Interpreter is a decidedly interesting, if less than gripping, thriller from Sidney Pollack. This was the director’s last film as a director--though he did appear later as an actor in George Clooney’s Michael Clayton--and it’s a solid finish for him. He has some terrific actors at his disposal and a timely political story to tell. Nevertheless, reviews were mixed and the film was not a hit. The problem is probably due to the expectation of viewers and reviewers. Though it is a political thriller, there’s not a whole lot of action in the film. It’s more of a meditation on death and revenge, with both Kidman and Penn’s characters suffering loss that keeps them sympathetic toward each other even as Penn’s investigation threatens to completely alienate them. The screenplay is based on an original story by Martin Stellman and Brian Ward, and a good part of it is set in the United Nations building itself. Though Pollack was initially denied access to the U.N. building, he eventually made a personal appeal to then Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who recognized the significance of the story and allowed his production team access to the general assembly hall as well as other portions of the building in which to shoot.
The film begins in Africa with three unknown men going to a secret meeting. The driver is Curtiss Cook, a rebel leader in the African country of Matobo. He is on his way to look at the bodies of executed rebels ordered killed by the country’s leader, Earl Cameron. Along with him are Afrikaner and fellow rebel Hugo Speer and French photographer Yvan Attal. They are there to gather evidence against Cameron in order to oust him as president and stop the mass murders he has perpetrated. Cook and Speer go into the derelict soccer stadium and three young boys lead them to the bodies. But when they come out the two are executed by the boys. Attal, still out in the Jeep, manages to escape. Meanwhile, United Nations interpreter Nicole Kidman has her day interrupted when it is learned that one of the metal detectors has been malfunctioning and the building must be swept by hand. At the end of the day she goes back to her sound booth to collect her personal effects when she overhears whispering on the assembly floor and believes it to be a death threat. But it’s not until the next day, when representatives of Cameron come to the U.N. and she is called on to interpret for them, that she believes the threat is against Cameron himself.
Sean Penn and his partner, Katherine Keener, are secret service agents called in to provide protection. During Penn’s interview with Kidman he rubs her the wrong way and she doubts his ability to protect her. Only then does he reveal that he isn’t there to protect her, but Earl Cameron when he comes to give a speech at the U.N. in order to avoid prosecution for war crimes. In fact, Penn actually believes she might be making the whole thing up. Though she isn’t, there are definitely things that she’s not telling Penn, which makes him suspicious. And the more he uncovers about her past, the more he suspects that she might not be the perpetrator of a hoax but part of an organized effort to kill Cameron when he comes to New York. In the course of the investigation it is not only revealed that Penn’s character has lost his wife in a car accident, but that Kidman has lost her entire family to Cameron’s death squads. Pollack plays the head of the Secret Service and Penn’s boss, who also must coordinate his agent’s activities with the chief of the New York police department, the great Clyde Kusatsu in a long overdue serious role. Other notable faces are secret service agents Robert Clohessy and David Fonteno, and Adrian Martinez as the sound engineer at the U.N.
Nicole Kidman does a terrific job not only with the part itself and playing the woman in peril, but also seems very convincing with the South African dialect. While Sean Penn can be an inconsistent commodity in terms of his performances on film, he is suitably subdued as the agent in mourning who prefers work to sitting around thinking about his late wife. Katherine Keener is terrific as Penn’s no-nonsense partner, but her part is too small to really become invested in. And George Harris has a nice turn as a rebel leader in exile, living in New York City and ready to take over should Cameron be convicted by an international court for crimes against humanity. The political hook at the time was the parallel between the fictional country of Matobo and the real country of Zimbabwe, as well as the similarity between the movie’s Earl Cameron and the real African dictator Robert Mugabe who had been criticized for ethnic cleansing in his country and reprisals against white Afrikaners still living there. The film does boast some very nice plot twists and a couple of real surprises that hold interest. The manufactured sexual tension between Kidman and Penn is far less believable or interesting. Still, The Interpreter is a credible thriller and a well-directed film by the late Sidney Pollack.