"THE INTERPRETER" rides for a long time on a compelling premise: the possibility of an assassination in the United Nations' General Assembly.
The threat has come to light from an overheard conversation. In the big room by chance one night, U.N. interpreter Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) catches some muttered words in Ku, the language of Matobo, which she understands so well.
Nicole Kidman as U.N. interpreter Silvia Broome and Sean Penn as federal agent Tobin Keller fail to really engage the viewer in "The Interpreter."
"The Teacher will never leave this room alive."
Born and raised in the (fictional) southern African nation, she's uniquely qualified to appreciate the severity of the remark. "Teacher" is the nickname for Edmund Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), the president of Matobo, who has been under international pressure to curb his draconian reprisals against political enemies. Zuwanie, who has demanded to address the United Nations , is in danger. So is Silvia for knowing about the threat.
But when she contacts the U.S. Secret Service, Silvia is surprised to find herself the target of suspicion by agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), the man in charge of investigating her report.
"The Interpreter," directed by Sydney Pollack, who made 1975's "Three Days of the Condor," has the nail-biting allure of an old-fashioned thriller. With scenes in the United Nations -- this is the first time a Hollywood production has been granted access to film there -- it also has smatterings of Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest," a thriller also set in and around the United Nations. (Hitchcock had to build his own U.N. set.) There's a hint, too, of "The Manchurian Candidate," a film about a hypnotically controlled assassin.
As a straight-ahead thriller, the movie is enjoyable and stirring much of the time. And there is one tense sequence involving a city bus that's the standout set piece of the film. But "The Interpreter" fails to get much traction in the character department. Although Kidman's Down Under tongue makes for a convincing white southern African accent, she seems rather schematically conceived: a multilingual quasi-superheroine and sophisticate with radical connections to (and formulaically traumatic memories of) Matobo's revolutionary days. And Penn's Tobin, who also carries around his own formulaic mental baggage, makes an interesting but not emotionally involving foil. Tobin's obsession that there's more to Silvia than meets the eye yields fascinating revelations, but it's not enough to burnish the film in your heart or memory. As for their growing romantic tension, the apparent meat and potatoes of the movie, it could use a little more salt and pepper.
There's at least one other problem. Silvia's the passionate citizen of a fictional African country in an otherwise realistic setting -- the world of interpreters at the United Nations. There's a disconnect between the gravity of the situation and a make-believe nation Somewhere in Africa. Should we really be worried that some leader from a made-up country might die?
Pollack's "Three Days of the Condor," which starred Robert Redford and Max von Sydow, had a greater sense of menace because it felt more rooted in actuality, the possibility of a vengeful CIA using all its power to kill a loose whistleblower. Although watchable, "The Interpreter" is a convoluted yarn that trades on well-executed suspense tactics but not its people. You watch "Condor" and you never forget von Sydow and Redford. See "The Interpreter" and chances are, you'll only recall Kidman's face. And that bus scene. "Condor" will endure; it already has. "The Interpreter" simply won't.
THE INTERPRETER (PG-13, 135 minutes) -- Contains violence, some sexual content and brief obscenity. Area theaters.