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Review: 'Interpreter' a terrific thriller

Stars, director craft a fine film

By Paul Clinton

Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman strike up an uneasy relationship in "The Interpreter."
Sean Penn
Nicole Kidman

(CNN) -- Sydney Pollack knows his way around a thriller. He's the director who brought us "Three Days of the Condor" and "The Firm," and he's a master at slowly building a sense of dramatic urgency until a shattering breaking point is finally achieved.

In his new film, "The Interpreter" -- a finely tuned example of the genre -- Pollack doesn't disappoint.

In a scene in which a possible murder is viewed across a courtyard, the director follows the action through the window of one apartment into the window of another; the scene moves nicely, reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window." And Hitch would be proud.

In one respect, Pollack goes Hitchcock one better in "The Interpreter."

When Hitchcock wanted to shoot 1959's "North by Northwest" at U.N. headquarters in New York, he was turned down. Pollack received approval, which makes "The Interpreter" the first feature film actually shot inside the U.N.. The location provides a sense of realism -- and tension -- that otherwise would have been impossible to obtain.

"The Interpreter" stars Nicole Kidman as Silvia Broome, a translator who hears a death threat against Edmond Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), the head of state of the fictional African country of Matobo. He's turned against his people, becoming a vicious warlord, and his murder is to be carried out in front of the entire world when Zuwanie addresses the U.N.'s General Assembly in a few days.

Broome, who was raised in Matobo and knows a few things about Zuwanie, is played by Kidman with equal measures of steel and vulnerability.

Differing styles

Her allegations of a murder plot are assigned to Tobin Keller, a recently widowed federal agent played by Sean Penn in a terrifically controlled performance. Keller is highly skeptical of Broome's allegations, and she doesn't think too highly of him -- or his tactics -- either.

Both harbor deep secrets and personal pain, and both respond to the pressures of an assassination plot in different ways: she reacts to words and diplomacy, he relies on action and instinct. However, as they race against the clock -- and the tension mounts with each assault against Broome -- they form a tentative truce.

The Interpreter
Director Sydney Pollack knows how to raise the level of dread in "The Interpreter."

How their feelings slowly change from uneasy distrust to unlikely bond is a testament to how artfully both Kidman and Penn have subtly layered their characters' shifting interactions. They make the characters, and the relationship, their own.

Catherine Keener is excellent as Keller's partner, the dry-witted, unflappable Dot Woods -- although her character turns into wallpaper halfway through the movie when the plot completely shifts to Keller and Broome. (Too bad.) And, as he often does, Pollock also acts in one of his films; this time around he's a department head for the Secret Service.

Taking its time

The plot, with its elements of international political unrest, genocide and terrorism -- at one point there's a terrorist attack in the streets of New York City -- resonates deeply. Indeed, it's fairly easy to think of the fictional country of Matobo as the African nation of Zimbabwe, and Edward Zuwanie as a thinly veiled stand-in for Zimbabwe's leader, Robert Mugabe.

In an exception to the rule of thrillers nowadays -- which insist on an explosion every five minutes -- the plot is allowed to unravel slowly, providing no easy, pat answers to many of the complex questions in the storyline. When the climax comes, it's doubly thrilling -- and unexpected.

"The Interpreter" features mind-snapping suspense, a provocative, intelligent script (courtesy of Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian), dynamic direction, and fine performances by two of the world's most accomplished actors.

In fact, I'd say it's one of the best films of the year, but given the lackluster movie year so far, that sounds like damning with faint praise. So let's say this: "The Interpreter" is top-notch entertainment, and well worth your nine bucks.

"The Interpreter" is rated PG-13.

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