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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

This one is just a little overcooked

The Interpreter

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Sydney Pollack
Running time: 128 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Like its heroine, Nicole Kidman, "The Interpreter" looks real nice. So nice, in fact, that you become willing to overlook the flaws such as the preposterous plot, staid editing, a marked rigidity in the performances that make the cast look like they suffer from excessively low blood pressure or that they have just walked out of a Botox clinic. But confronted by the gorgeous lighting (cinematographer Darius Khondji channeling Renoir), impressive interior scenes of the U.N. headquarters, not to mention Kidman gorgeously silhouetted against the Hudson River -- well, you start to think it's enough that such a film exists! Why expect it to work, too?

News photo
Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman in "The Interpreter"

In the beginning, there's a scene in which Kidman's character is described as having studied at the best universities in Europe, is whip-smart, a multilinguist and beautiful. And then someone asks with an ironic smile: "Can she cook, too?" There it is: "The Interpreter" in a nutshell -- it can't cook, but so what.

The problem is (and at the risk of sounding like my grandmother), looks will carry you only so far. At the end of the day, it's the personality -- the story! that makes the difference. And despite "The Interpreter" being helmed by Sydney Pollack and appropriately mature and full of wise, folkloric anecdotes about war and politics and human foibles -- it's hard to get involved, mainly because the story is bogged down with too many contrivances, speeches and calculated plot twists. It was written by a five-man screenwriting team that was later pared down to three, and it looks as though each one insisted on getting his own, personal interpretation of African politics up there on the podium. The events are pulled in multiple directions, coming to a dead halt in some parts and careening down the freeway in others.

Silvia (Kidman), a U.N. interpreter whose specialty is the (fictional) African language of "Ku," overhears a fragment of a whispered conversation in that language, at night when she returns after hours to her interpreter's booth to retrieve a forgotten bag. The conversation reveals a plan to assassinate President Zuwanie (Earl Cameron) of an imaginary African country called Matobo, during his speech to the General Assembly scheduled the following week. Silvia returns home, agonizes, and finally waits until the next day to report it.

Apart from getting the authorities to believe her, she's hounded by Secret Service agent Keller (Sean Penn) who wonders why she waited an entire night before giving the alert and suspects she may or may not have personal motives for wanting Zuwanie dead. ("No, I just want him gone. Gone and dead are two different things," Silvia says coolly.)

Matoban native Silvia lost her parents and a sister to Zuwanie's regime of terror years ago. Like so many dictators, Zuwanie had started out as a humanitarian liberator but after seizing power, switched over to genocide. Silvia had once fought on the opposing side, but now, as she tells Keller, she believes more in the "power of words" and the U.N. to deliver her homeland from Zuwanie's reign.

Meanwhile, Keller is dealing with his own inner demons. He lost a wife to a car accident two weeks ago -- she had been in the car with her lover, a dancer. "Great dancer. Terrible driver," he explains to Silvia, his face going all pained and creasy.

The pair almost imperceptibly warm to each other, but the air between them is too thick with suspicion, tension and general fatigue for the relationship to blossom. At one point Silvia breaks down and rests her head on Keller's shoulder while his arm cradles her shoulder. And that's about it as far as romance is concerned.

The absence of passion (physical and otherwise) is, however, the best thing going for "The Interpreter." After all, Keller has just lost his wife and is pulling double shifts to get over her. Silvia, apart from her grueling daily interpreting duties, could be plotting an international assassination on the side. Any attempts at sexual intimacy would be out of place and just plain phony. So it's gratifying to see how conversations between Silvia and Keller never move beyond the ideological, how all their arguments are over issues like justice and vengeance. In a Zen-like way, the sight of such two excessively attractive people as Penn and Kidman showing no interest (superficially at least) whatsoever in exchanging even a single kiss, is kind of sexy. And it's all depicted with stylish flair, too. You'd never think that repressed emotions can work so well in a mega-budget movie like this one, but it does.

Also surprising (or not, considering her work in "The Hours") is how well the glamorous Kidman fits into the utterly non-glamorous role of Silvia, who's defined by her professional ability to translate the spoken words of others with brevity and precision. After fulfilling this function she goes home, alone. Almost devoid of makeup, bespectacled and wearing a T-shirt, Kidman seems almost . . . nonchalant, enabling you to relax and still manage to contemplate those perfectly chiseled features. I almost felt lucky.

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