Movie Reviews

Movie Review: The Interpreter – The Residual and Global Effects of Genocide

Written by Martin Stellman, Brian Ward, and Charles Randolph
Directed by Sydney Pollack

Nicole Kidman is one of those actresses that I can’t quite put my finger on. I can’t say I love her work, nor can I say I hate it. At best I find her work tolerable, although I think I have a harder time embracing her as the characters she portrays. Not since Dead Calm have I seen her in a role where I can honestly say she nailed the character and made me believe. If anything, I often think she’s trying too hard.

That assessment is true of her role in The Interpreter. In trying to function in the capacity of helping the nations of the globe work out their differences, the United Nations in New York City has a multitude of interpreters who translate the various languages. Nicole Kidman portrays one of those interpreters, Silvia Broome. Her specialty is an obscure African language. These interpreters are in high demand at the United Nations and it’s actually a great job to go into as there aren’t many out there, especially for the lesser-used languages.

Sylvia is doing her job during a particular session when it is evacuated. She forgets her bag and heads back to her booth later that evening, only to overhear a conversation taking place which she believes is a plot to assassinate a visiting dignitary. Dr. Zuwanie is about to visit the United Nations to make his case that he is not perpetrating state-sanctioned terror on the citizens of his country, Maboto, but rather the victim of it himself.

If it sounds a bit far-fetched that this translator would happen back into the building at a time when two men are plotting in a language only she and a few others would understand, take comfort that Secret Service Agent Tobin Keller (portrayed by Sean Penn) thinks so as well. Silvia reports what she hears, only to undergo lie detector tests and grilling by those skeptical of the coincidence. Added to that, when her background is researched, it’s uncovered that she herself has reason to want vengeance on Dr. Zuwanie.

The suspense was good as the plot unraveled. Sylvia seems to be on the side of protecting the dictator, yet as more and more is learned about her it evolves into her actions being suspicious. Certain events seemed predictable, others took me by surprise. Kidman didn’t convince me in the role, more often than not looking like a deer in the headlights as events unfolded around her. She didn’t seem to convey the strength her character would have had to do some of the things suggested, so she was never believable as a security risk. The mystery surrounding her is revealed at an appropriate rate, however, and I think an actress I could have embraced in the role more would have added to the story.

Of all the characters in The Interpreter Sean Penn’s secret service agent was the one that seemed the best. Tobin Keller is well-rounded. He has several things going on outside of this case, but they are peripheral to what’s happening and handled in such a way to give the character a sense of balance. Where a great deal of time could have been given to the backstory of his character, just enough is given for the audience to understand and Penn builds on those events so that there are hints which show themselves in Keller’s life. There are no long rambling speeches by Keller talking about how difficult or unfair his life has been or how he had to move on – Penn shows it through facial expressions and the way he carries himself as he puts one foot in front of the other and goes on about his life.

The action is decent, taking place on the streets of New York. It might seem hard for some in this post-9/11 world to watch a city bus blow up (and even harder for those of us who have loved ones who work in that capacity) but it’s become a part of our new reality and entertainment for those outside the big city.

Gaining permission to film inside the United Nations was a first, as is detailed in some of the bonus features. That was probably done as a publicity move, as the role of the U.N. in the world has taken a hit in some quarters, particularly in the U.S. I have seen the U.N. for myself so that didn’t add much to the film for me. I really don’t think anything shown here will change anyone’s opinion although it is interesting to look inside the workings of the place.

The Interpreter really makes the point that the individual losses are more than just a body count. They affect people to the core of their being, as is shown by what both Sylvia and Tobin experience and feel. To many, death on the news is just that, whether it’s in Africa at the hands of death squads or in an accident on the evening news. The Interpreter humanizes the events which often do no more than serving as a backdrop to our preparation of dinner. In this way, the two main characters should have connected more, and I think that was the original intention of the film, but it never quite arrives at that point.

It misses in other ways, and I think it could have been better, but The Interpreter tries to remind us that the death of an individual has greater repercussions, long after the rest of us have gone about our business and forgotten.


” Alternate Ending
” Deleted Scenes
” Sydney Pollack at Work: From Concept to Cutting Room
” Interpreting Pan & Scan vs. Widescreen
” Feature Commentary with Director Sydney Pollack
” The Ultimate Movie Set: The United Nations
” A Day in the Life of Real Interpreters

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