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Culture Reviews
The Interpreter
Tchaikovsky Cultural Center 
Directed by Sydney Pollack. Written by: Martin Stellman & Brian Ward (story); Charles Randolph and Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian (screenplay). Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener. 128 min. UK / USA / France.

By Sam Gerrans

Review top sheet: a competently made “movie of the week” toting a feature-film budget, this political and personal drama has more mileage in it as a terrestrial TV presentation than a big-screen event.

You will need to concentrate if understanding the plot is important to you.

Will you like this film?

Yes, if: you liked “The Firm” – also a highly plot-driven Pollack film. Like “The Firm”, “The Interpreter” leaves you with an impression of having quite enjoyed the ride but not exactly sure where it is you’ve been
No, if: you are an anti-globalisation activist and like to fire-bomb US embassies in your free time – there’s loads of subliminal NWO propaganda in here and if you’re alive to that sort of thing, it will get on your nerves
Maybe, if: you are good at crosswords and like finding plot holes – you’ll have a field day here; personally, I couldn’t be bothered

Comments: what I liked about this film is that it has strong themes and the key relationship works well.

The backstory, the “politics” and the rest of what everyone’s getting hot and bothered about didn’t do it for me at all.

Out-of-five star ratings:

• Story: **
• Dialogue: ****
• Substance: **
• Film craft: ****

Story comments: if you look at the writing credits above, you will see that they use both an “and” and an ampersand (if you noticed without me mentioning it I suggest you get out more often). These two seemingly synonymous conventions have different and specific applications. “&” denotes a team working together. “And” denotes unrelated people re-doing each other’s work.

This story has one “&” and two “ands” and a total of five writers. At least three of these were getting copious notes from Sid – a majorly powerful director – and were, thus, very keen to please. Maybe the more so since you can be fired from a screenwriting project in Hollywood and not even be notified – even from one you dreamt up. The screenwriter is not an artist in American cinema. He is a service provider.

And because there were so many stakeholders in the plot, the end result – while calibrated to keep us engaged – suffers from a lack of personality.

“The Interpreter” is not badly written. It’s strong on theme and the key relationship – that of Kidman’s Silvia Broome and Penn’s Tobin Keller – worked for me. But had it not, there was not much else there to keep me interested.

If you want to keep track of the ostensible plot, get a jolly good night’s sleep first and take a notepad.

Dialogue comments: I like Sean Penn. He reminds me of myself in a really bad mood. When I watch him, I think: if I carry on frowning at people I’m going to end up looking like that. Then I try to relax my face.

But the guy can act. He makes being quietly belligerent and potentially psychotic look like the only really sensible life choice. The hard-nut shell and predisposition towards bloody and invigorating violence mark him as of Irish decent beyond reasonable doubt. But you just know there’s the wit and gentleness of a poet underneath it all, embedded in some remote crag. The interest is in watching it evolve into view. All he needs is the right occasion.

Which brings us to Kidman. Her character (Silvia Broome) is revealed by degrees, too, but her backstory was too convoluted for me to buy into. However, she delivers the package with the messianic certainty of a new cult recruit.

If she believes it, it must be true.

Substance comments: the story looks at grief, forgiveness, revenge, hope and disillusionment. Their treatment made up what, for me, were the interesting portions of the film.

All the pro-UN, pro-US isn’t-war-a-nasty-thing stuff (i.e. isn’t-war-which-the-US-doesn’t-currently-find-useful-a-nasty-thing) just grates on me. The idea that the US administration is more civilised or moral than the naughty African junta in the story is simply not borne out by reality. Try booking your next holiday in Yugoslavia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq or in any of a wide range of Central and South American countries if you want convincing.

But, clearly, none of this is an issue for many people. If it were, the English-speaking world would simply withold its taxes. And a certain amount of political indifference will be an advantage for the purposes of enjoying the film under discussion.

Film craft: this is a nicely-shot film. The composition is great. But the edit does seem to assume that we are paying a lot more attention than we probably are after a long, hot summer’s day in a stressful and complicated city.

A taste of the story: political intrigue and deception unfold inside the United Nations, where a US Secret Service agent (Penn) is assigned to investigate an interpreter (Kidman) who overhears an assassination plot.

Sam Gerrans is a freelance writer and translator:

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