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April 26, 2005

Kidman shines in Pollack's thoughtful U.N. drama

The Interpreter is the first movie filmed inside the United Nations complex. In a beautiful shot during the opening credits, we descend upon the building, hearing snippets of dozens of languages as each speech is translated into native tongues. Though most audience members (including myself) have never actually been inside the U.N. building, these visuals carry a sense of weight. This film, despite its contrivances, feels very real at times. All the standard trappings of a Hollywood thriller are present, but they are woven more believably into a setting of modern fears, political compromises, and human foibles. It is this careful setting that allows us to ignore a great deal of silliness.

I suspect this sense of weight will make The Interpreter the only film shot at the U.N. It doesn't exactly cater to the U.N., but instead portrays it as a well meaning, bumbling organization with a lot of talk and very little action. Director Sydney Pollack seems to sense that he will never film in the U.N. again: A number of private conversations take place in the General Assembly room after hours, as if it would be open for the use of all employees at all times. These conversations acquire a tantalizing tone as a result of being shot in such a highly symbolic space. Still, I couldn't help but wonder if the security concerns discussed in the movie might have been alleviated if the G.A. room had been more secure.

Nicole Kidman stars as Silvia Broome, an interpreter at the U.N. who works in English, French, Portuguese, and Ku, the language of her fictitious African homeland, Matobo. Some have been so bold as to suggest that her homeland is fictitious primarily because Kidman could never have pulled off a proper South African accent. While I admire Kidman for daring to be unrecognizably different in each of her roles, I must admit that her accents have been distractingly bad at times, perhaps most noticeably in Cold Mountain and The Human Stain. Here, she again falls in and out of vocal character. But I get more out of watching her as an imperfect chameleon than I do out of watching Christopher Walken, Robert DeNiro, or Clint Eastwood play exactly the same characters over and over again. The girl has guts and a quiet talent, which comes out in muted scenes. Anyone can do histrionics, but few can match Kidman's careful performances in subtler situations.

The Interpreter gets right down to business. Broome returns to the U.N. after hours one evening in order to retrieve a bag she left in her sound booth. At that moment, she happens to overhear a plot to assassinate Zuwanie, the controversial president of her native Matobo. Many, including Broome, would say that Zuwanie has it coming. He rose to power with promises of democracy, but now rules with an iron fist. Silvia's disgust with Zuwanie makes the accidental eavesdropping seem highly suspicious to FBI Agent Tobin Keller, played by the ably bland Sean Penn. Though she is afraid for her life, he is more interested in investigating than protecting.

Tobin's character is a little too basic for my taste. He is returning to work after two weeks of mourning over his recently deceased wife. Silvia isn't exactly a deep font of character development, but the plot at least provides her with several interesting twists. Tobin, on the other hand, is exactly what we expect him to be from beginning to end, and that makes him seem out of place here. He loses all the dramatic scenes to Silvia. He loses all the funny scenes to his sidekick, Dot Woods, played by the underappreciated Catherine Keener. We get a very amusing introduction to the team as they are assigned to the dreaded look-after-foreign-dignitaries-at-strip-clubs beat ("Ma'am, please don't touch the ambassador"). These characters all collide as the assassination plot is investigated, Silvia's dark past is slowly revealed, and additional plots are thrown into the mix.

I don't quite know what to hope for when I approach a thriller. There is a part of me that looks forward to the mindless explosions, twists, and romance of an action movie. But then there is the nagging intellectual in the back of my head who insists that those things aren't realistic: Most bomb plots are foiled, background checks and metal detectors prevent United Nations employees from doing anything too radical, and FBI agents do not fall in love with the people they investigate. The Interpreter finds some degree of balance between the opposing forces of the ridiculous and the serious. I was very happy to see sexual tension replace full-blown romance. And all explosions are accompanied by a degree of seriousness. We see a news reporter fumbling through his lines in shock, agents actually remembering that people died before moving on to the grand finale, and some amount of aftermath.

On the other hand, the entire film is set within an unrealistically small circumference. Every character seems to have some connection to every other character. When mild-mannered Silvia Broome wishes to confront a political leader, she simply finds his whereabouts in the newspaper and goes to talk to him. Uh-huh.

Furthermore, the dialogue often strays into informational monologue, as characters explain things to "each other," when they are really filling the audience in on back story. And when characters aren't delivering monologues, they are psychically predicting exactly what is happening behind closed doors.

Ultimately, though, The Interpreter knows better than to place its emphasis on these flaws. This is not a thriller so much as a story of how people deal with threats. The characters aren't action heroes. They are lonely, intelligent individuals trying to survive in an increasingly anonymous world where friendship can be a liability. There are long stretches without action or notable incident in which the camera steps back and lets us observe the characters. The movie works best on this level. It is mindful of how serious the events of a thriller are, how deeply they would affect any sane human being. I enjoyed the twists and turns, but what I will remember is Silvia quietly pacing her apartment and Tobin silently investigating her through binoculars.