At work late one night, Sylvia (Nicole Kidman), a United Nations interpreter, overhears two men speaking in a dialect which only she understands. The men plot to overthrow the corrupt president of a fictional, Zimbabwe-esque African nation called Matobo. Sylvia alerts the authorities and is put in contact with Tobin (Sean Penn), a Secret Service agent whose duties include the protection of foreign dignitaries. Tobin is skeptical of Sylvias claim, and his skepticism is confirmed when her own history reveals a pattern of oppositional behavior to the Matobon president and a cache of dark secrets.
Sound confusing? It is, up until its final minutes. But within the convoluted structure, Pollack creates complex moral dilemmas, edge-ofthe-seat suspense and thought-provoking commentary on a wide variety of political issues.
In a way, The Interpreter is a love story with the United Nations itself at its focus. Filmmaker Pollack received the first permission ever granted to shoot within the United Nations complex and he obviously believes in the power of diplomacy. The films final shot pans over the Manhattan skyline, from the United Nations building on one end to the absence of the World Trade Center on the other, bringing into sharp focus the political conflicts of the times in which we live.
Kidman once again shines as the films unlikely, morally complex protagonist, proving that she is a method actress willing to go the extra distance (learning French, the flute and an imaginary African dialect for this role).
Penns performance is a bit more uneven. Audiences accustomed to his over-the-top roles will not necessarily be disappointed, but perhaps slightly taken aback, to see Penn in an ordinary male lead. He performs well, but audiences may get the sense that his full range is not being used.
Unfortunately, the chemistry between Penn and Kidman is contrived at best. Their relationship outside the confines of Penns role as Kidmans protector is poorly scripted, fraught with moralism and tainted by an awkward stab at romantic chemistry. The weight of the films near-obsession with the theme of forgiveness falls on the moments of intimacy between Penn and Kidman and, as a result, these moments seem forced and preachy.
The film also struggles with how to best use its supporting cast. As a result, several actors are underutilized. Catherine Keener, who plays Tobins partner, Dot, comes across as having a sardonic nature and substantial intelligence. Its too bad, then, that her scenes and dialogue are sparse. One of the most memorable sequences in the film is a snippet of dialogue between Dot and Matobos president, but the brevity of the intense moment leaves viewers wanting to see more of what both actors are capable of.
If anything, The Interpreter should be recognized for its simultaneous functions as an escapist film and a legitimately thought-provoking political piece. In a time of terrorism and war, the film reiterates the ideals of the United Nations and the hope that diplomacy will retain a measure of effectiveness.
It also unflinchingly examines the problem of African genocide and political turmoil, albeit through the lens of an imaginary nation. The fact that the film it presents these messages while still being a gripping and entertaining film is reason enough to see it; its relatively strong performances are merely icing on the cake.