Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter slowly, neatly piles on the drama
With Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn in the lead roles and a plot involving some contemporary-sounding geopolitical intrigue, The Interpreter comes on as a prestige item full of serious-mindedness. Over a long but suspenseful haul, the plot convolutes itself into something that may not entirely make sense, but what results is still a smartly engaging exercise in the international-intrigue genre.
Silvia Broome (Kidman) is a United Nations interpreter who overhears talk of an assassination attempt to be made on a visiting African leader. Tobin Keller (Penn) is a Secret Service agent who is called in to investigate her claim. His initial impression is that she’s lying, but the signs of real danger are too great to ignore, and the escalating tensions of their somewhat personal cat-and-mouse game keep spilling over into crises in much larger arenas—including especially the United Nations General Assembly.
The production gets a certain amount of gut-level fascination out of the increasingly complicated efforts of Keller and company to insure that no assassination takes place. But the film’s strongest appeal resides in the characters’ tendencies to tell each other something less than the whole truth. A virtual epidemic of half-hidden agendas fuels the zig-zagging plot and takes the two main characters into twists of emotion that are sometimes intriguing and sometimes bewildering.
Both Keller and Broome are making their way through spells of grieving in the course of the action, a circumstance that adds to the film’s measure of offbeat interest while also stacking the dramatic deck a little too neatly. But it seems to the film’s credit—and the actors'—that this notion even half succeeds.
The film’s reluctance to let either of the main characters become conventionally sympathetic figures within the thriller plot is confirmed in the variously sidelong performances of Kidman and Penn, neither of whom indulges in star turns and both of whom evoke characters whose heroic impulses are partly compromised.