One late night while retrieving some personal items, U.N. interpreter Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) accidentally overhears an assassination plot involving a controversial African dignitary in town for a visit. Calling for protection, Silvia meets F.B.I. agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), who initially sees Silvia as a threat, but quickly comprehends that there is more to this story than she's letting on. Fearful for her own life, yet reluctant to give Keller all the facts, Silvia finds herself in a hurricane of intrigue as the days count down to the dignitary's volatile appearance.
Who knew Sydney Pollack still had it in him? Pollack, the veteran director behind "Out of Africa," returns to the thriller genre that served him so well with hits like "Three Days of the Condor" and "The Firm." In recent years, Pollack's output has repeatedly flatlined ("Random Hearts"), but that all changes with "The Interpreter" (IMDb listing), a smartly mounted thriller that seizes the moment it hits the screen, and takes the audience for a sharp, taut ride.
A 71 year-old man in what has unfortunately become a young person's business, Pollack uses his years of patience and respect for the audience to maintain his picture's striking pace and reluctance to spell things out. "Interpreter" isn't some gaudy, ridiculously half-baked piece of pop filmmaking. While it clearly relishes its thrills, the picture is a much more restrained experience that leans heavily on character exploration and tension. Pollack maintains a simmer for a majority of the running time, only carefully boiling the events when he needs to remind the audience of the danger at hand. The effect is engrossing filmmaking, setting aside enormous amounts of screen time for the actors to dig deeply into their roles and for the crowds to get used to these clandestine characters, making their increasingly paranoid and deceptive reactions believable when lesser filmmaking would render them obvious and pedestrian. This is Pollack's best work in decades, and he instills the picture with a perfect recipe of suspense, pathos, and political deception.
Special attention must be paid to a mid-movie sequence set aboard a city bus. Without giving too much away, I'll say that a Silvia, some African politicians, frustrated F.B.I. agents, and some explosives find their way into one tight, moving area. It's a phenomenal piece of directorial flash, adding much needed oomph to the midsection of the movie. It's a cool breeze of pure cinema, worth the price of admission alone.
In the title role, Nicole Kidman proves once again she's one of the best actresses working today. Though cursed with a flawless movie star haircut, Kidman deeply affects with her acting here (and good accent work), deliciously wallowing in her character's questionable allegiance to the law. Kidman keeps Silvia a mystery throughout the film, never revealing her hand, which allows for critical interplay with her co-star, Sean Penn. Penn's performance is more of a curiosity, with the actor choosing some rather sleepy, lusty line readings to spin his cliched role somewhere different. It works, if only because Penn is constantly inquisitive of the unknown, and is willing to try new things to spice up the character. Helped a great deal by the snappy screenplay, Penn and Kidman would be reason enough to sit through a mediocre film; thank heavens Pollack decided to step up his own game to meet them halfway.
Shot discreetly and crisply by top tier cinematographer Darius Khondji ("Panic Room," "Seven"), "Interpreter" is a feast for the eyes, and a whole lot of fun for your other senses too. It's great to see Pollack return to his old "Condor" form. Don't miss this rare opportunity to see a magnificent thriller again on the big screen.
Filmfodder Grade: A