From its disturbing opening, this Nicole Kidman/Sean Penn helmer is shot through with a realism and foreboding you don't find in most against-the-clock thrillers. And while The Interpreter deals with the murky political waters of international diplomacy, it's really more about the people than the policy. It may well have been the first movie allowed to shoot inside the real United Nations building but veteran director Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa, Tootsie) knows he's telling a very human story. Nicole Kidman's interpreter overhears what sounds like a plot to kill an despotic African leader. With only five days to the supposed killing, time is ticking for Sean Penn's secret service agent to check out her story, stop the plot and protect the witness. In a lesser film, the emphasis would have been on car chases and shoot-em-ups, with Kidman and Penn falling into bed before the end of the first reel. Happily, what we get is much better – believable characters you care about with some spot-on chemistry and dialogue between two fine leading actors. Pollack's no stranger to thrillers, though, (Three Days of the Condor, The Firm) and knows how to crank up the tension without being formulaic. His action set-pieces and chases are part of the drama, not bolt-ons. The movie also looks great, from the sheeny polish of the UN building to the streets and tenements of New York. The Interpreter 's 129 minutes certainly don't drag.
Nicole Kidman displays a more nuanced version of her maiden-in-a-crisis – her icy fragility playing off perfectly against Penn's ruggedly wily good guy. It's hard to take your eyes off either of them. A good surprise too is the care Pollack takes to flesh out lesser characters like Penn's team of juniors (and his own cameo as Penn's boss). No one is incidental and if Pollack is making a point that's probably it. The effects of injustice and violence are personal and so is The Interpreter . Never ask for whom the bell tolls etc.. So while it resonates, as it intends to, with all-too-familiar debates about the merits of UN diplomacy versus go-it-alone violence, The Interpreter isn't banging any drums. It challenges you like all good films should through the story and the characters.
Entertaining is probably not the right word for it – but The Interpreter is certainly engrossing, challenging and more affecting than most thrillers on the market. If you want a mainstream film that will make you chew your popcorn more thoughtfully, this should do nicely.