“The Interpreter” is a watchable, if not always absorbing thriller, thanks to sheer star power and top directing talent.
Nicole Kidman is Silvia, an American raised in Africa, who works as an interpreter at the United Nations. One night she overhears an assassination plot that appears to be about a controversial head of state who is about to make a speech to the General Assembly. Secret Service agents Keller (Sean Penn) and Woods (the superb Catherine Keener) are assigned to evaluate the threat. That means that they have to decide whether to believe Silvia. Is she holding back some of what she knows because she is afraid, or is she part of the plot? “What is she now, a victim or a suspect?” one character asks.
Director Sidney Pollak (who appears in a small role as a Secret Service official) knows how to create an ominous tone and his sense of pace and timing is superb. One scene that takes place on a bus should be used in master classes on how to direct a thriller. The script has some clever lines. “I’ll be honest with you,” Silvia says to Keller. “I don’t know how honest I can be with you.” It cleverly uses structure to help tell the story. A series of frustratingly incomplete phone calls evolves into connections in both technical and emotional terms. Finally, two people communicate in person, revealing their secrets.
Those scenes with Silvia and Keller are the heart of the movie, and Kidman and Penn have the conviction and the charisma to deliver all that the script offers them and more. The UN setting is fresh and intriguing and the film avoids some of the expected developments. Keener makes a strong impression as more than the usual wise-cracking sidekick.
But the story begins to work against itself by not giving us a clear enough reason to root for any side in the larger picture. It goes on for about 20 minutes too long and at least one of the plot twists dissipates the tension and our attachment to the characters.
Parents should know that the movie is a tense and scary thriller with characters in frequent peril and several very violent situations, including shooting and bombs. Characters are injured and killed. The movie also includes brief strong language and some drinking. A character appears to drink to numb feelings of pain and loss.
Families who see this movie should learn more about the United Nations and the Hague, where international trials are held. Organizations like Human Rights Watch provide information and advocacy on “ethnic cleansing” and other issues like those portrayed in the movie. They should talk about the importance of using exactly the right word, especially in sensitive communications like diplomacy. And they should talk about Silvia’s story about her country deals with murderers and the families of their victims.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the classic romantic thrillers Charade, in which Audrey Hepburn briefly plays an interpreter, and Arabesque, with Sophia Loren and Gregory Peck, which also concerns an assassination plot. Director Pollack is responsible for a nicely paranoid thriller starring Robert Redford, Three Days of the Condor. And another good thriller about a Secret Service agent is In the Line of Fire with Clint Eastwood.