The big news surrounding The Interpreter is that this is the first picture to be filmed within the hallowed halls of the United Nations building. Director Sydney Pollack managed to break new ground, preferring to film on location rather than fabricate the sets essential to the mystery of an interpreter who may have overheard plans to assassinate a foreign dignitary. The bad news is the United Nations should have found a higher quality film to pop its cinematic cherry instead of this overly and needlessly intense drama.
Nicole Kidman plays Silvia Broome, the aforementioned interpreter. Silvia returns to the United Nations building after hours one night to retrieve some personal possessions and overhears what she thinks are plans to assassinate the soon-to-be-visiting President Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), a dictator in a small part of Africa. Conveniently for the plot what Silvia overhears is in the Matobo language, about a Matobo dignitary - convenient because that happens to be one of the languages Silvia translates, and even more so because that’s where she happens to have grown up. She, like just about everyone in the U.N. can’t stand what Zuwanie has become - a madman who utilizes genocide and other terror techniques to dominate his country. That doesn’t stop her from coming forward with the uncovered plot though, soon putting Silvia face to face with the secret service.
Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) is the agent assigned to determine if Silvia’s case is genuine or not. Keller has his own problems - his wife recently left him and then was killed in a car with her lover, which kind of threw a monkey wrench in Keller’s hope of getting back with her. Because of this Keller walks around brooding so deeply you want to bitch slap Penn and remind him that he once played the light hearted Jeff Spicoli. I don’t know what is with Penn’s selection of roles, but the guy desperately needs to relearn how to do comedy. If his stint at this year’s Oscars made people think he lacked a sense of humor, The Interpreter proves it, as Penn barely cracks a smile through the whole film. It’s understandable though, the guy’s wife just died. Of course, that doesn’t keep him from taking a more than professional interest in Silvia.
Kidman and Penn are both serious dramatic actors, and they do their best to prove that in this film. Both are incredibly intense just about every moment they’re on screen. The problem with this is that the film just doesn’t call for that. Instead of getting to know these characters we are attacked by their fiercely concentrated personalities. Neither is tremendously happy, but their desperately dour malaise seems over the top. If Sydney Pollack could have found one strong moment to anchor either character to, we might be able to summon some sympathy for them. Instead the movie turns into a profound whinefest any time Kidman or Penn start to monologue - something Pollack gives them far too many opportunities to do.
Still, the characters aren’t the weakest link for The Interpreter since both Penn and Kidman are talented actors and are able to keep the long, morose moments interesting, if not depressing. If nothing else you can remain entertained through the long speeches by counting how many times Kidman’s accent changes. Truly though, it’s the story that lets the actors down, suffering from convenience and often totally jumping any sort of reason. I’ve already mentioned the convenience of the plot happening in a language and country Kidman’s character is so strongly tied to, but take this for example as well: Your main witness to a possible conspiracy is seriously shaken in an explosion, covered in cuts, scrapes, and blood. Do you take her to the hospital? No, of course not. Take the gal home so you can get a tender moment as you clean the blood off her. Never mind how you continue to go on about how your wife just died. Hot blood-covered women quickly make thoughts of mourning disappear. Or maybe Keller couldn’t see how injured Silvia was, given the constantly wind-swept hair covering half her face even indoors.
Perhaps The Interpreter could have been a better picture if Sydney Pollack had figured out what sort of a movie he was directing. Is it an action film? A serious drama? A suspense movie? Is it trying to convey a message about the governments in Africa? The Interpreter doesn’t know which direction to head, and instead goes everywhere at once without becoming any of them. The few suspenseful moments are the film’s strong points, as the movie steps away from its overpowering high drama and becomes a fugitive hunt worthy of Tommy Lee Jones’s Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard (The Fugitive, U.S. Marshals). It’s a shame Penn’s Keller doesn’t have anywhere near the sense of humor. But then again, Penn doesn’t seem to possess it either. Lighten up Spicoli. You don’t have to be Robin Williams, but at least offer a grin every couple of years.