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The Interpreter

Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.

Thrillers I think are driven - and ultimately defined - by plot and unfortunately writers Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian couldn't quite make this one jell. For instance, the story is motivated by not one but two coincidences.

The first coincidence is even commented on by Sean Penn's character, Secret Service agent Tobin Keller: that Nicole Kidman's interpreter character Silvia Broome just happens to overhear a plot to kill an African dictator at the United Nations when she is one of only a handful of people in New York who can understand the language of the plotters. Unlikely, but fair enough - it's the gimmick and because it sets up the story, forgivable.

The second coincidence is more problematic. (*** SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH ***) Silvia brother is killed in the opening scenes, although we don't find out that he was her brother until about halfway through the picture. More importantly, she doesn't find out he is dead until quite late in the piece, and it becomes a critical motivator for her ultimate actions. So even though the event happens at the start of the movie it doesn't become crucial until quite late, and as such it feels contrived. I think the writers were going for a tragic inevitability by lacing the thriller with this personal dimension but the result turned out clunky instead. (The climactic showdown also depends on a staggering lapse in United Nations building security. Despite some explanatory sleight of hand, I found it impossible to accept that Kidman could be where she was in this scene.) (*** END SPOILERS ***)

Another problem with the script is that there were some serious doubts raised by the intelligence agencies about Broome's veracity. It turns out that she has a shady past and personal connections with the political leadership of the (fictional) African country in question. She could well be lying about the conspiracy, or even be in on it. However, the audience never has any cause to question the fact that she was telling the truth because of the scene where she overheard the plot and was scared out of her wits. I think it would have been more interesting and effective if we hadn't been witness to that critical event so that we could have wondered along with Sean Penn if Kidman was kosher. As it stands an entire plot thread seems wasted.

The last problem is that the conspiracy as it was revealed just wasn't clever enough. There was even someone giving the ending away halfway through. Nobody in the movie made a big deal of it at the time but the explanation was so right, such a perfect Hollywood-story fit, that the audience had every right to expect for it to turn out to be a red herring. Only it wasn't.

So as a thriller The Interpreter didn't work. This doesn't mean that the acting wasn't fine (Kidman's African accent sounds authentic, Sean Penn plays the tortured role as competently as he always does, Catherine Keener is very good as Penn's partner in an underwritten part) or that the direction and production isn't up to A-grade standards. (Though watch for some very sloppy continuity editing in the first meeting between Kidman and Penn - her hair swings back and forth over her eyes like a pendulum.)

But because thrillers are ultimately judged by their plots, I don't think as a movie it can be chalked up as a success. Maybe a partial one at best.

However: The Interpreter makes a simple but profound statement about words and violence which is why, even though it doesn't work as a thriller, I was ultimately moved by it. As a movie I can't really get behind it. As a statement of philosophy the message is eloquently communicated.

(PS: I wonder if the African custom recounted in the movie, summarised by the quote at the top of this review, is real or made up?)

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 20, 2005 2:42 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Tape.

The next post in this blog is The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

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