Like many of the film’s characters, Sydney Pollock’s “The Interpreter” has a reputation that precedes it. The movie, which pivots around a U.N. interpreter (Nicole Kidman) who claims to overhear a death threat on the leader of a fictional African country, is the first film in history allowed to shoot inside a U.N. embassy (yes, that includes Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 classic “North By Northwest”). The movie doesn’t let us forget it, either: A majority of its action is set in and around the iconic halls of the diplomatic headquarters.

What qualifies “The Interpreter” for such an honor? The talent involved — including former Oscar winners Sean Penn, Kidman and legendary director Pollack (“Out of Africa”) — couldn’t have hurt. But aside from that, the film’s plot offers another explanation; it boasts a full slate of exploding buses, oppressive foreign dictators and other elements of popular, post-Sept. 11 interest — all things that the controversy-laden United Nations was likely more than willing to take under its wing.

Even with such an impressive inception, on the whole, “The Interpreter” is neither as relevant nor as skillfully conceived as its cover-story production. Granted, with Pollock behind the camera (and on the screen in a minor supporting role), the film is a thoroughly competent production, with crisp narration and rich, exquisite photography. There is also the exceptional performances from Kidman and Penn, both of whom execute restrained and calculated turns that skillfully downplay their powerhouse potential to match the film’s subtle tone. And then there is the aforementioned setting — the rhythmic, enigmatic halls of the United Nations — that provide the movie with an inherent visceral allure that is, by definition, one of a kind.

On the other hand, the film’s hopelessly over-plotted story stretches and eventually sidesteps its initial intelligence in lieu of the monotonous artificiality of the final third. And as topical as the plot may be, the movie treats terrorism and guerilla warfare as if they were expendable story tentpoles that function mostly to lead up to the inconceivably absurd climax, which is almost as overwrought as it is implausible. And if the security standards at the United Nations are half as slipshod as “The Interpreter” wants us to believe they are, the inside look it offers is just about as close as anyone who sees the film will rationally want to get the facilities.

Moreover, as many critics of the film have pointed out, there is also the dubious casting of the title character — why did Sylvie Broome (Kidman) have to be white? Yes, the cast is functional as it is, but the film never quite convinces us that making Broome a white African had more to do with the narrative than it did with the studio fine-tuning its opening weekend prospects (the movie debuted at the top of the charts worldwide, with $23 million in the United States alone). In any case, “The Interpreter” remains a taut and sincere effort, with the outlandish material as the unfortunate drawback to what is otherwise an expertly-produced and effective thriller. Still, for their part, the United Nations might have been better served by opening its doors to Hitchcock years ago.

 

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

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