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Director: Sydney Pollack

Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Kevin Misher

Written by: Charles Randolph, Scott Frank, Steven Zaillian

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener, Jesper Christensen, Yvan Attal, Earl Cameron, George Harris


It’s been a long time. For the last 12 or 13 years, Sydney Pollack, one of America’s finest directors, has languished in the doldrums of romantic-cliché hell, from Sabrina, an ill-fated remake of an Audrey Hepburn classic, followed by Random Hearts, a lifeless drama which made Harrison Ford look foolish twice. Here, with The Interpreter, Pollack returns to top form with an excellent drama which evokes the mysterious intelligence of the great ’70s political thrillers, Three Days of the Condor (also directed by Pollack), The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men. Not since 1993’s underrated, nail-biting gem The Firm has Pollack given American audiences a reason to hold their collective breath. Pollack has assembled a remarkable cast led by two of the most gifted actors of their generation. Nicole Kidman plays Silvia Broome, a former anti-Zuwanie activist who has moved from her home in Motobo, Africa (a fictitious country) to become an interpreter for the United Nations. Broome’s parents and sister were killed by a landmine when she was a young girl, and she wears the sorrow of their passing on her well-tailored sleeve. Penn, too, has suffered a tragic loss, and the two heavy-hearted loners are brought together under bizarre circumstances when Broome overhears an assassination plot at the UN. At first, Penn and Kidman seem like an unlikely pairing, but as the film and its layers of mystery are peeled away, their chemistry grows in intensity, ultimately producing a satisfying brew of desire and unrequited passion.

Penn is the gloomy Secret Service agent Tobin Keller, assigned first to interrogate Broome, then to protect her. The emotional resonance of Penn’s performance is an increasingly rare commodity in big-budget Hollywood films. The lines of his tortured face are extraordinarily well-drawn and the cracks in the tenor of his raspy voice simply heartbreaking. The presence of Penn, who has purposefully avoided making big-budget Hollywood films, is a testament to Pollack’s reputation and power; and rarely has this supremely gifted performer been more effective, despite the inherent limitations of the thriller genre.

All of the supporting characters enrich the film as well—from the dry, witty presence of Catherine Keener as Penn’s Secret Service sidekick, to the despotic blue-eyed veteran Earl Cameron as the Motoban Prime Minister Edmond Zuwanie (a thinly disguised version of Zimbabwe’s disgraced leader Robert Mugabe).With thoughtful attention to detail, the film is beautifully photographed by the gifted cinematographer Darius Khondji, best known for the moody, dark palette of Se7en. Khondji brings the UN building to life, and its presence as a major character in the film adds yet another layer to this thriller’s luster. For the first time in its history, the United Nations, with the endorsement of no less than Kofi Annan, allowed a film crew to shoot inside its hallowed walls. Not even Alfred Hitchcock could convince the UN to let Cary Grant run for his life through its vaulted corridors in the 1959 classic North by Northwest. Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Scott Frank (Get Shorty), two of Hollywood’s more celebrated screenwriters, collaborate to fashion a story pulsating with tension, brooding with mystery. Thankfully, it is never overwhelmed by repetitive car chases, explosions, or exploitative violence, so often the trademark of a Hollywood thriller these days. The film does, however, deliver an occasional plot hole with a few clichés tossed in here and there (the final confrontation with Zuwanie comes to mind); but as an entertaining, informative piece of filmmaking, it succeeds on nearly every level.

This is a mature, elegant film about international politics, diplomacy (for better or worse), and the machinations of powerful governments and their elected leaders. It is also a film about the corruption of ideals and the loss of faith. It goes without saying that mass audiences are unaccustomed to learning anything of importance when they settle down in a darkened theater with their popcorn and sodas. With The Interpreter, Pollack and his crew of actors and artists ensure that this game of cat and mouse is much more than that—it is a thinking person’s film filled with heart and soul.

—Tiffany Crouch Bartlett

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