Look and listen <I>The Interpreter</I>'s muffled message


It was quite a coup for director Sydney Pollack to get recent Oscar-winning actors Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn together in a movie. They're just the most obvious indication of the care he lavished up and down the line to make The Interpreter the first-class entertainment it is.

We're not talking about great art here, but great craft. Some people might use the words interchangeably; but as Kidman's character, United Nations interpreter Silvia Broome, points out when citing the difference between "dead" and "gone," I could lose my job for confusing them.

Silvia is being interrogated by Secret Service agent Tobin Keller (Penn) about her politics. She claims to have overheard an indication of a plot to assassinate an African president when he addresses the General Assembly.

"She is the United Nations," someone says of Silvia, the daughter of a British mother and white African father, who was born in the U.S. but raised in Africa.

The African leader, Gen. Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), is coming to defend himself against a recommendation he stand trial in international court for the "ethnic cleansing" he's carried out in his country, Matoba. (Using a fictional country allows the film to take a tough stand without alienating any international markets.) The president he deposed, Kuman-Kuman (George Harris), is living in exile in Brooklyn.

It's apparent that Zuwanie is a bad guy, but it's not certain that anyone else is any better. Zuwanie's head of security (Jesper Christensen) is one of those suspicious characters who might as well wear a sign announcing he's up to something, but what it is will still surprise you. Silvia subscribes to an African philosophy, "The only way to cure the grief is to save a life"; but because of her knowledge, the would-be assassins have targeted her, too.

It's noted early that Silvia is governed by what she hears, while Tobin's focus is on what he sees. The viewer must pay attention to both, because a lot of information in The Interpreter is presented almost subliminally– an image glimpsed as part of a photo montage or a phrase overheard while words are coming at you in three languages at once.

That may sound like a lot of work– and it would be if Pollack hadn't done his job so well. He's also masterfully combined thriller elements with the political and personal. Tobin's estranged wife died in an accident two weeks ago. Silvia lost most of her family in Africa.

Of course, there's– if not sexual tension, at least an air of possibility– between Silvia and Tobin; and for backup, Tobin has a partner on the Secret Service Dignitary Protection Squad, Dot Woods (Catherine Keener), who has a bit of a crush on him. On the job, Dot gets to tell a lap dancer, "Please don't touch the prime minister." (Director Pollack cameos as their boss.)

The Interpreter is heavier on suspense than action. It gives you a halfhearted chase through Manhattan traffic, a climax that appears to emulate the original Manchurian Candidate, and assorted bits of violence, but your mind will race faster than your heart.

As absorbing as The Interpreter is while you're watching it, you'll have no trouble leaving it behind in the theater. Message movies are cool, too, but sometimes you just want to have a good time, be put through a wringer, and emerge unscathed.

If that's the case, The Interpreter speaks your language.