The Interpreter
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The Interpreter

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There are basically two types of thrillers, the mindless thrills for the sake of shock and the more intelligent, psychological thriller. Considering the track record of master director Sydney Pollack you can be sure that his latest film, the Interpreter, will be in the later category. As with most really good thrillers the premise is simple, it’s the details that keep us on the edge of our seats. Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) is a young woman employed by the United Nations as an interpreter. Born in South Africa she has mastered many of the numerous languages and dialects used in the continent. Among them is one particularly remote language used in the fictional nation of Matobo. While she has always considered this of minor importance one day she overhears something in the dialect that radically changes her life. One day she over hears an assassination threat against the dictator of Matobo, Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), "The Teacher will never leave this room alive". Although he came to power in an air or respectability he has recently come under the cloud of insinuations that his administration has been involved in genocide. The pieces start to fit as the audience discovers some of the back story for Silvia. She was born in Zuwanie’s country and even supported him. At one point she witnessed the murder of her parents and fell away from any political involvement. Since she could speak Ku, the language of Motobo as well as several others working for the United Nations seemed to be a dream job. Silvia reports the conversation to a security and comes in contact with secret service agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) and his partner Dot Woods (Catherine Keener). He is doubtful of her story; such an assignation would mean a political turmoil. After a polygraph to determine if Silvia is actually telling the truth the only conclusion is she is under stress, I guess hearing a plot to kill a national leader would have that effect on most people. The frazzled young woman is made even more uncomfortable by the almost menacing presence of Nils Lud (Jesper Christensen), Zuwanie’s head of security. Silvia is not certain who the plotting voice belongs to which opens the flood gates for a variety of suspects. Because of her former political involvement Keller begins to suspect Silvia as being in the plot, somehow trying to distract the secret service from something far more sinister. Some potential plot holes are nicely addressed, albeit simplistically, such as why not just cancel the speech where Zuwainie is targeted. It is explained that this would be political suicide and he would rather face death than lose his position. Slowly, Silvia and Keller begin to bond. She discovers that her brother was just killed and learns that Keller had very recently loss of his wife. Grieve helps the pair to find some common ground as they continue to dig into exactly what is about to transpire.

Many in the film, and without doubt some in the audience, may feel that there are just too many coincidences to take. Silvia happens to hear a plot to kill the leader of the country of her birth. The threat is in an exceedingly rare language that she just happens to know. Silvia happens to have been a support of the alleged proposed victim. This film is like looking at a well designed building. You don’t have to worry about what makes it soar hundreds of feet in the air, you just marvel at the construction. What works in this film is how the pieces fit together, sure you have to have a good dose of suspension of belief but that is to be expected. This film delivers what you expect from an adult thriller; you are kept guessing through out the movie and get to experience a good twist at the conclusion.

Although there are many fine performances presented here this is fundamentally a two character play. To see an actress as beautiful as Nicole Kidman is one might jump to the conclusion that she is window dressing, hired for a pretty face. Nothing could be farther from the truth, especially here. Kidman has the ability to inhabit her roles. This is true even in vehicles that are less than notable flicks; does any one remember the Stepford Wives? When she gets to perform in a taut thriller like this it is something to behold. She manages a nice South African style accent that helps her in sell Silvia to the audience. Behind her attractive face is a mind that is always at work. Kidman makes Silvia into an intelligent, motivated woman that tries to put the past behind her only to see it come back full force. This is juxtaposed against her co-lead; Sean Penn. Penn has certainly grown from the stoner characters that helped to start his career. He has grown over the years to one of the finest actors on the scene today. Penn plays Keller almost as the opposite of Silvia. His face is one of a man that has taken the years very hard. He is cynical, finding it difficult to trust. When his wife died the world was pulled out from under him. Now, faced with the most important decisions of his career he finds that he has to trust this pale, tall young woman. There is real chemistry between Kidman and Penn but like much of the film not necessary in the way you might have expected. There is no forced romance. So many films seem to feel that sharing danger has to result in a bedroom romp. Here the relationship Kidman and Penn present is adult, based on a more realistic response to what is going on. Catherine Keener is an excellent actress that is unfortunately relegated to almost a background role.

Sydney Pollack is one of those directors that have managed to provide films that have worked their way into cultural significance. On his resume are such diverse films like ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’, ‘Tootise’, ‘Three Days of the Condor and ‘The Firm’. With this film Pollack takes his time, he lets the story unfold slowly, permitting the audience time to absorb all the necessary little details. One of the best pluses here is Pollack managed something no event he great Alfred Hitchcock could, much of the film was shot on location at the United Nation. A deal was made that permitted the film crews access during the weekends and the realism of a practical location shows in the end product. While sets today can be very good there is nothing like the energy the cast and crew get from being there. With so much CGI sets around today its nice to see a director go old school.

Universal has done a great job with bringing this film to DVD. While the typical trend of separate pan & scan and widescreen versions are available stick with the widescreen one. With a highly visual director like Pollock you do yourself a major disservice getting the P&S version. The anamorphic release is in a brilliant 2.35:1 ratio and not a centimeter of the screen is wasted. The color palette is realistic, well balanced and with no signs of edge enhancement. The Dolby 5.1 audio provides a full sound stage that gives realistic ambience and crisp dialogue. The extras are very good here. Naturally, there is a look at what it was like to actually film at the United Nations. This is a place of such natural drama and intrigue that as a set it is perfect. There is a featurette about what the life of an interpreter is, having to translate not only the words but more importantly how it is said and what is the sense behind it. Sydney Pollack at Work: From Concept to Cutting Room is a little film school from one of the masters. It follows Pollock through the entire life cycle of the movie. The most ironic featurette is Interpreting Pan and Scan vs. Widescreen with Pollack. Pollock has been a vocal opponent of the dreaded ‘film altered to fit your screen’ message. This feature demonstrates why we should always go widescreen when buying a DVD. The thing is the featurette is found on but versions of the DVD. If you want a very good thriller and are willing to pay attention to the details this is certainly the film for you.

Posted 9/28/05

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