The Interpreter is, on one hand, a by-the-numbers poltical thriller, raised above the crowd by a first-rate cast, polished and professional execution and, most importantly, its primary filming location. Sydney Pollack’s crew was the first ever allowed to film within the confines of the United Nations complex in New York. The heightened sense of reality gained by this access gives the film an urgency and potency that it would not have achieved if they’d had to fake it.
American-born Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) has lived in Africa most of her life but now works in the United Nations as an interpreter. She is one of the few people who speaks Ku, an obscure dialect from the fictional African nation of Matobo. One night, she returns late to retrieve some personal items and overhears some men speaking in Ku, saying that someone called “The Teacher” will not leave the room alive. When she learns that Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), the former liberator and now dictator of Matobo, is coming to New York to address the UN General Assembly, she realizes that he is the target.
At first, the Secret Service agents assigned to inventigate her claims, Keller (Sean Penn) and Wood (Catherine Keener) are skeptical, and Silvia, while insisting she is being truthful, undermines her own credibility by the playing things close to the vest. Acting as if the threat is credible, Keller still tries to pierce Silvia’s carefully maintained exterior of neutrality to get at the whole truth. Further suspicion is cast in her direction by Zuwanie’s chief of security, a former Dutch mercenary named Lud (Jesper Christensen). I will note that even if the evidence is genuine within the plot, the incriminating photos of Silvia look like the worst Photoshop job ever perpetrated in a major motion picture.
The Interpreter works because it stays within itself and remains true to kind of movie that it is: a tautly wound procedural thriller in which we follow Agents Keller and Wood through the process of preparing for Zuwanie’s arrival while digging into Silvia’s backgroud. While it’s doubtful that either the UN or the U.S. Secret Service would allow director Pollack to be too accurate in the details of their security procedures, it feels right. Every character behaves logically according to their role in the story and no one is required to do anything conspicuously stupid to further the plot.
Nicole Kidman’s performance is key to the success of this film. She has to suggest many layers while revealing few, capturing our sympathy while arousing our suspicion at the same time. Sean Penn’s Keller is a mask of outward professionalism concealing grief over a recent loss. He’s not quite as nuanced as Kidman but his role doesn’t require it. Catherine Keener has the relatively thankless role of the partner but she is able to bring off a convincing air of competence combined with a sisterly concern for a grieving fellow agent.
All told, The Interpreter is one of better mainstream films of 2005, although in the admittedly small sub-genre of the Africa-themed thriller, it finished second this year to the more unconventional The Constant Gardener.