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Movie Review: 'The Interpreter'

EntertainmentMoviesSean PennNicole KidmanJesper ChristensenUnrest, Conflicts and WarSydney Pollack

3½ stars (out of 4)

"The Interpreter"—a new Sydney Pollack political thriller set and shot largely in New York City's United Nations headquarters—is the kind of polished, exciting treat the movies should give us far more regularly. As beautifully designed, swift and sleek as a classic sports car, throbbing with emotion and intelligence, it's a neat suspense film that's also dramatically and sociologically potent, with two supremely talented stars, Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, delivering beyond the emotional call of duty.

Kidman and Penn play Sylvia Broome and Tobin Keller, a dedicated United Nations interpreter and the gloomy, hard-case federal agent who has been assigned to protect her after she overhears what may be an assassination plot against Zuwanie, a.k.a. "The Teacher," the dictator of the fictional Matobo, her birth country. (Zuwanie is played by Earl Cameron, villain of the 1965 James Bond film "Thunderball"). They're top notch and so, often, is the movie.

Despite a certain reliance on formula, it's a full-throttle thriller, pitting the feds against the mysterious would-be killers. It's also an affecting psychological piece, as the haggard Keller makes a rocky recovery from a broken marriage and fights his increasing attraction to Sylvia, a one-time anti-Zuwanie activist whom he increasingly fears may be more involved in the plot than it initially seems.

Kidman and Penn are both great movie actors, though she has been seen as more of an audience favorite and he as too emotive and explosive for mass tastes. Here, though, he keeps most of his torment under a brooding, Bogart-like surface. That makes "The Interpreter" even more effective—especially since, like Keller, we're never quite sure about Sylvia. The movie shows us the bloodshed and tragedy that feed her rage against Zuwanie, and that might well make her a fanatic. But it also keeps throwing other players and suspects into the game, including Zuwanie's menacing security chief, Nils Lud (a smooth job by Jesper Christensen) and the fierce, charismatic anti-Zuwanie leader Kuman-Kuman (George Harris).

The puzzle is an intriguing one, and while Pollack and his writers rachet up the formula tension, they also develop some interesting themes: how world events instantly impact the United States and the modern UN, and how personal emotions intertwine with politics. One of the smartest thriller-makers around, Pollack doesn't overindulge in action and fireplay in "Interpreter," but he knows how to use violence to keep the air heavy with threat and how to stage somewhat familiar scenes so they seethe with tension.

The set pieces in "Interpreter," especially a bomb-on-the-bus chase reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's "Sabotage" and a final showdown in the UN General Assembly hall, which has a few echoes of Hitch's second "The Man Who Knew Too Much," are gems of visual design and editing. And it helps enormously that so much detail was lavished on "Interpreter," including the invention of an entire imaginary language, Ku, for Matobo's people and extensive shooting, for the first time, in the United Nations building—something even Hitch's "North by Northwest" had to fake.

The script is somewhat less laudable, though it's certainly much better than the average formula big-studio scenario. An original worked over by five writers, including Steven Zaillian ("Schindler's List") and Scott Frank ("Out of Sight"), it sometimes shows the strain of mass collaboration, especially toward the end, which begins brilliantly, then is marred by an unlikely backroom confrontation that frays credibility even as it pumps up one last blast of suspense.

Yet "The Interpreter" keeps us thrillingly in its grip anyway. Pollack has shown before that he's a master at romantic-political thrillers, not only in his obvious successes like "Three Days of the Condor" and "The Firm," but even in his alleged "failures," like the due-for-re-evaluation "Havana." At 70, all his skills are intact, and his movie's pace and heart are unflagging. He's given a big assist by Penn, who summons up real poignancy in his final moments, and if that's an unusual for a movie like this, it's not uncommon in Pollack's classy thrillers and melodramas.

The final charge of feeling in the last scene is a testament to the occasional power of the big studio movie. It's a testament as well to the director's immense simpatico with his characters and actors, to the ambiguous reactions Kidman summons up for Sylvia and to the jaggedly fervent feelings Penn keeps under wraps throughout the movie. Like Sylvia, the trio of Kidman, Penn and Pollock are expert interpreters, giving us something universal and rich, even when the language is ersatz.

'The Interpreter'

Directed by Sydney Pollack; written by Charles Randolph, Scott Frank, Steven Zaillian; story by Martin Stellman, Brian Ward; photographed by Darius Khondji; edited by William Steinkamp; production designed by Jon Hutman; music by James Newton Howard; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Kevin Misher. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:08. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for violence, some sexual content and brief strong language).Silvia Broome - Nicole Kidman

Tobin Keller - Sean Penn

Dot Woods - Catherine Keener

Nils Lud - Jesper Christensen

Philippe - Yvan Attal

Marcus - Michael Wright

Zuwanie - Earl Cameron

Kuman-Kuman - George Harris

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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EntertainmentMoviesSean PennNicole KidmanJesper ChristensenUnrest, Conflicts and WarSydney Pollack
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