Review: “The Interpreter”

In a time when thrillers are about big explosions and action set pieces, leave it to Sydney Pollack to show us how old school filmmaking makes for a refreshing and welcome change of pace. “The Interpreter” is a film the likes of which Frederick Forsythe or Robert Ludlum would be proud of, one that harkens back to those old Cold War movies of yesteryear like “The Day of the Jackal”, “The Fourth Protocol” and Pollack’s own “Three Days of the Condor” but adds a whole other more human element missing from said espionage-laced suspense rides.

Yes it’s a tense story involving the UN and Nicole Kidman, but “The Peacemaker” it’s not – both are thrillers but so utterly different in their approach it’s astonishing. That 1998 Clooney/Kidman piece was a fun but forgettable action vehicle filled with fast cuts and flat characters out to stop terrorists. This film however is a deliberately paced character study involving two strikingly different individuals brought together due to circumstance and a much more believable mystery.

It’s this slow pacing that will turn away a younger audience, there’s no real fast cuts or big action scenes and at a little over two hours much of this involves people just talking in rooms and following procedures with lots of quiet moments of reflection (even though there’s shootings, explosions, tense stand-offs, etc. at times too). Yet, like the best stories, Pollack slowly unravels his mystery with great care and notches up twists that both surprise and yet come off entirely credible. The few times he pushes for tension, it leaves one breathless.

Two scenes in particular stand out for their suspense, the first of which is a “Manchurian Candidate” style ending that goes off in a different but cleverly unexpected direction. However it’s the ‘bus sequence’ that goes down as probably my favourite scene in a movie in many months. Various plot threads all come together in a scene that just ratchets up the suspense so effectively one finds oneself utterly riveted and yet nervously laughing because it’s just so tense and overwhelming how well he’s played us as an audience. Even now, weeks on from seeing it, this sequence still gives me shivers.

Kidman and Penn deliver they’re usual high quality level of solid performances, the Aussie girl even managing to not only match Penn’s gravitas but exceed him. This is far from their most memorable work but both deliver excellent efforts even if they’re hampered by trite contrivances – Penn an awkward backstory involving an ex-wife, Kidman valiantly trying a South-Central African accent (as her character is from a made up country and studied in the UK one can forgive the occasional hiccup).

She delivers as a convincing woman in danger, but one driven on by strong inner beliefs. He plays it almost all internally as a quiet but blunt control freak trying to stop himself from emotionally imploding. Both play it all somewhat low-key but that perfectly blends in with the pot boiler tension. Kenner, Pollack, and the assorted African actors all lend strong support throughout – special kudos to Earl Cameron & George Harris for their small but pivotal roles as the potential victim President Zuwanie and his deposed main rival Kuman-Kuman respectively.

At over two hours this is somewhat a long movie and it feels it. Pollack gets things right with almost clockwork precision for the most part, but he does stumble on occassion. The opening is good, but not as ‘shocking’ as it wants to be. When the action steers towards the politics of the United Nations, the stalking of Nicole or the slow reveal of her murky past it becomes fascinating even if it’s all a bit contrived. At times though it will drift away into an unneeded element such as an awkward adult friendship/vague romance subplot between the leads that ultimately fizzles out although does make for a poignant conclusion.

The political element involving an African conflict and the country’s not so internationally liked President is a thinly veiled (but deserved) swipe at Zimbabwe’s infamous Robert Mugabe, although look hard enough you’ll find digs that could apply to various political leaders (Mr. Bush amongst them). Pollack’s use of the real UN building provides great location shoots and an authentic feel to the proceedings which feel very grounded in today’s more anarchaic and conservative political world. Some may mock it’s simplistic world view, but it often takes the higher ground of demonstrating how and why violence should be a last resort and how, despite various setbacks and admittedly deserved calls of hypocrisy throughout the years, the goal and purpose of the UN is ultimately a commendable one.

Production elements ranging from James Newton Howard’s score to Darius Khondji effectively moody cinematography all blend perfectly together. The General Assembly and the various hallways of the UN may not be as glamourous as people might expect them to be, but they do feel like the real thing and you can’t help but wonder about what really has gone on in those hallways of power.

This is smart, adept and compelling adult cinema. A thriller which doesn’t offer easy answers to its questions and takes the tougher higher ground. It may look at itself and the world through rose-coloured glasses at times, and it certainly has a bit of fat around the middle that could’ve been trimmed, but that doesn’t take away from its understated power. Without question the strongest and most intelligent film we’ve seen since last December and although not awards-calibre per se, it’s still a damn solid movie deserving of praise.