Film: The Interpreter

As political thrillers go, The Interpreter (2005) is a middle-of-the-road affair, well produced and professional but lacking that certain something. Set in New York City, the intrigue revolves around a United Nations interpreter named Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), a worldly polyglot who hails from the fictional south African nation of Matobo. Matobo is ruled by President Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), a former revolutionary whose initially hopeful regime has turned to genocidal tyranny. His imminent speech at the U.N. looks like to be a publicity tactic to head off a crimes-against-humanity trial at The Hague. Silvia has complicated feelings about Zuwanie from her rebellious youth in Matobo, but when she overhears an after-hours death threat against him in the U.N. assembly room, her new diplomatic mindset is called into question during a subsequent investigation by Secret Service agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn). Keller is charged with protecting Zuwanie during his visit, a detail that entangles him with Silvia, whose storied past in Matobo raises significant alarms. But Tobin has his own personal demons, and despite his suspicions of Silvia, she may be a kindred spirit, complicating his work.

The conspiratorial vibe of The Interpreter would probably have worked better in the grimy, paranoia-wracked seventies. In the more polished, road-tested blockbuster filmmaking of the 2000s, it feels a smidge inauthentic—perhaps exacerbated by a political premise that, while dealing with entirely fictional geopolitics, still manages to feel culturally appropriative. Director Sydney Pollack moves the action along well enough, but the perfectly competent Kidman and Penn lack the subdued romantic spark the script requires of them. The production values are great, with especially convincing location filming at the actual United Nations helping greatly with verisimilitude. And the always-welcome Catherine Keener is along for the ride, underused but effective as Keller’s partner. Overall, a decent thriller mystery that never quite rises to greatness.

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