The Interpreter

Director: Sydney Pollack
With: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn

Runtime: 128 min

Sean Penn is not the kind of actor to fear type-casting. His characters are usually intelligent, fragile, and brimming with tension and understated menace. They are also quite boring. These are characteristics prominent not only in his latest role, as CIA agent Tobin Keller, but also the film itself.

The Interpreter is a polished and poised political drama which dimly recalls the glory days of Hitchcock. It is also a cold and dull ‘thriller’ notable more for its self-importance than for any actual thrills or suspense. The film shares a lot in common with a chess game; cold, calculating, tense, deliberate and dull.

Penn’s character Keller is assigned to investigate Afrikaan translator Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), who claims to have overheard a coup to assassinate the despotic dictator of her native Kundu. Against the backdrop of their tense and oddly tedious cat and mouse exchanges the plot unravels a preposterous and contradictory conspiracy which keeps you guessing, but doesn’t keep you caring.

A Sydney Pollack film starring two Oscar winners is guaranteed critical success. And it is not altogether undeserved; Kidman and Penn both deliver masterful and engaging performances. Penn plays angst-ridden very well, and is compelling, even if his character is dull and underdeveloped. The film is dominated by Penn and Kidman; their conversations, their histories and their simmering sexual tension. The screenplay, though focuses on the dialogue at the expense of the plot itself. It leaves holes and contradictions, and, more importantly, neglects the adrenaline rushes and excitement (except for a memorable bus sequence) which should be a major feature of any thriller.

Although it’s good to see an intelligent and thoughtful thriller amid the mire of mindless violence and hormones, there must be a compromise between underestimating your audience and boring them. Pollack’s direction, normally spot on, is mushy and self- indulgent and while he has sealed a coup of his own in becoming the first director to film inside the U.N, he seems brainwashed by the gravitas of his surroundings. As a result, The Interpreter adopts the old Hollywood role of producing pro-government propaganda: its message is perfectly in tune with that of the Bush administration, and this is the worst aspect of this film, guaranteed to turn off audiences everywhere. Kidman’s speeches about the wonders of democracy are, at times, so overblown that I’m tempted to revolt myself. My own dictatorship would, indeed, be a sight to see.