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Whispered voices, still lies
A film review of THE INTERPRETER by Camus
"There is no such thing as the United Nations.
There is only the international community, which
can only be led by the only remaining superpower,
which is the US."
Neocon John Bolton, US candidate for U.N. Ambassador
"Can I get you anything?" – "How about a hood?"
Secret Service Agent to UN Interpreter
about to take a lie detector test...


If only the entire movie had the same serrated edge as that simple but politically loaded exchange. Even staunch anti-war activist Sean Penn, here playing a secret service agent, gets to tell Nicole Kidman (the eponymous interpreter) that last year was a 'rough one' for the beleaguered United Nations. Doesn't he know it. Penn took off for Iraq to see for himself and got a lot of flack for it. It was believed (by whom I'd love to know) that famous actors should stay well clear of politics. Why? Is acting only allowed if you're already a politician? What about those who've left show business for, erm… another show business? Eastwood, Reagan or Rainer Wolfcastle - sorry, Arnold Schwarzenegger; does Hollywood encourage right wing thespian ambition? What happened to the Sarandons, the Sheens and the rest of the luvvie left? Don't they get to run?

The United Nations, championed in Sydney Pollack's new thriller, is under threat in the real world. Its power has been blunted by the political and economic needs of an Anglo-American Christian cabal who have the literal power to play war in whomever's back yard they please. And it's a power they are only too willing to use. In a way, it's a very good thing that the physical presence of the U.N. is in New York. Anywhere else and it really would be ignored. It's good to see the iconic building and its ideals actually taking centre stage. Now if Kofi Annan can get his son out of the news, maybe the United Nations can weather the Iraqi shaped snub from its host country and start making a difference again.

In The Interpreter, translator Sylivia Broome (Kidman) overhears a death threat aimed at a Mugabe-like African dictator based in a fictional African country (not that we're fooled for a second). Sean Penn is Keller, the agent in charge of the visiting head of state's safety. Past events haunt both characters and via a sometimes implausible plot, they come to a personal understanding about the nature of grief. So Star Wars, this isn't, thank the Force for that. All the elements are in the right place and most are in the right order. There's nothing to criticise in the acting and the direction is assured. It just feels like all the ingredients are there but it's just a tad, a mere smidgeon undercooked. The urgency isn’t quite urgent enough. The thrills are not quite thrilling enough. It feels like a script issue but Pollack does like to take his time. Maybe all those knowing looks delivered by the principals derailed the pace.

And when is another director going to let composer James Newton-Howard have his head? Is M. Night Shylaman the only director who pushes his music to the fore and not treat it as if it were orchestral bubbles simmering under the surface? Newton-Howard's score (as much as you could hear in the atmosphere and effects heavy mix) services the film well enough but it's not a trait of the movie that pulls everything into a cohesive whole. It has its moments but again, almost perversely, the moment of the movie belongs to two supporting actors in a throw away bit of human behaviour. It's such a small moment, one to be naturally overlooked by any casual viewing but I was touched by it.

We have established that Penn has a no nonsense partner (played by Catherine Keener, the romantic ideal of both Cameron Diaz and John Cusack in Being John Malkovich). There is a solidity about their professional relationship and this never strays into romantic areas although it is clear there is trust and affection on both sides. This, we assume, is how secret service agents operate regardless of gender. But after a catastrophic event that results in a dead colleague, Keener arrives at the scene with Penn and the first thing she does is go over to one of the other male agents, who escaped barely with his life and holds him almost maternally. It's a throwaway gesture that all at once acknowledges shock (in a Hollywood movie, Heavens!) and the importance of caring physical contact after a trauma. The way Keener delivers this action is as natural as it is appreciated. But still the movie fails to really open up its thriller throttle.

Sidney Pollack has a lot to live up to. His superb Three Days of the Condor is the template Hollywood political movie and I am aware of the oxymoronic usage of both 'Hollywood' and 'political'. He even has Penn quote from Condor albeit in the guise of an original dialogue line. But what a fine line it is: "You think not getting caught in a lie is the same as telling the truth." Classy. But whereas Condor (from the initial group assassination) bulleted along with the total audience identification on Redford, The Interpreter (once we know Kidman's heard something bad) delivers us two at first antagonistic protagonists and the movie does an odd sort of split. This isn't to say that both characters are not worth delving into psychologically but it damages the pace of the film concentrating on the two stories. Yes, it may have worked better with some genuine surprises in the script and yes, it's less of a thriller and more about how one handles death according to one's cultural identity but; as Penn figures out the mechanics of the final scenes there's a "Oh, so that’s what it's about, is it?" a sort of meta-English take on a leisurely thriller. At this point in the narrative we want to be blown away. You're left wondering "Where’s Nicole?" as she wanders off for the last fifteen minutes of the movie.

Now, Ms. Kidman. She has been praised on this site, notably for her extraordinary work on Dogville. Here she is playing a white south African (with a Streep-like accent, that is, a pretty much faultless one) and showing at first a glacial (from Africa?), brittle front. She warms up (of course) and both the protected and curmudgeonly secret service protector get chummy as in these movies, they always do. But what floored me about Kidman this time out was how perfectly she slips into the 'star' role, the actress as icon. Of course that's more the audience's doing on a global scale but cinematographer Darius Khondi helps a great deal. Kidman is luminescent in this film. I swear she actually glows. It's a soft, light skintone framed by blond hair that always seems to deposit strands for maximum vulnerability and therefore desirability. Kidman's recent workload has led her into some recent mis-castings but she acquits herself wonderfully for Pollack.

Sean Penn as Agent Keller is very convincing. Penn has that extraordinary face, the pinched anguish as default. One of the idiosyncrasies of Kidman's brother in The Interpreter is to make a list of words he likes. At the top of the list is 'bodacious'. This simply has to be a reference to one of Penn's earliest and most knockabout roles, that of the stones surfer of Fast Times At Ridgemont High. 'Bodacious' was his character’s word du jour, or even d'année. Penn's Keller has been knocked for six by a meaningless accident and only a month away from it, he is still raw and in no mood for displaced African interpreters with a chip on their shoulder. Penn manages the hard to soft dissolve with some panache given that in lesser hands, his admission of why he feels the way he feels would be ham-fisted and clumsy. As mentioned before Pollack and his editor really let the actors have their moments, pauses included but then as German architect Mies van der Rohe said "God is in the details…" or was it the devil?

But other details are required to make a thriller thrill. The presence and the faces of the stars are not enough. But that said, it's an admirable movie looking back at its own host country and finding a lot to criticise even if it is Hollywood criticism, toothless but strangely good looking…

The Interpreter

USA / UK / France 2005
128 mins
Sydney Pollack
Tim Bevan
Eric Fellner
Kevin Misher
Charles Randolph
Scott Frank
Steven Zaillian
Martin Stellman
Brian Ward
Darius Khondji
William Steinkamp
James Newton Howard
production design
Jon Hutman
Nicole Kidman
Sean Penn
Catherine Keener
Jesper Christensen
Yvan Attal
Earl Cameron
review posted
28 April 2005