Intrigue at the UN with Kidman, Penn

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Intrigue at the UN with Kidman, Penn

Set mostly in and around the United Nations building, “The Interpreter” lets itself get a little preachy toward the end about the coming together of humanity and the beating of swords into plowshares and so forth. Around the same time, the story suddenly becomes rather trite. But all that only takes up a few minutes, which is a small price to pay for an intelligent and mostly satisfying thriller.
The UN interpreter of the title is played by Nicole Kidman, whose out-of-hand beauty often distracts people from realizing what a good actress she is (she finally had to put on a fake nose in “The Hours” to prove it). Her character overhears whispered talk about a plot to assassinate an African president who’s scheduled to address the UN General Assembly.
Called in to investigate is a U.S. Secret Service agent (Sean Penn) whose division is responsible for protecting visiting dignitaries. (Eventually, the movies will use up all the interesting little subcategories of law enforcement that nobody knew existed, but they haven’t yet.)
Kidman’s character has an ambiguous background (some southern Africa, some America, some Britain, if I’m remembering right) and an ambiguous accent to match. Penn is appropriately suspicious of Kidman’s having been in just the right place and time to overhear the alleged assassins discussing their plans (within microphone range, yet).
As for Penn’s character, we soon learn that he’s walking around with serious damage from his personal life. Everything’s in order, then: the mysterious femme fatale with an exotic accent and holes in her story; the lonely, hard-bitten cop; a setting where high-powered intrigue is practically dripping from the light fixtures. Let the cliches commence.
But for the most part, they don’t ―and when they do, you almost don’t notice it. The guiding hands here (the director is the accomplished Sydney Pollack) make sure that most of what transpires isn’t insulting to the grown-ups in the audience.
It’s mostly in the details. An old, incriminating photo turns up, a group shot that includes Kidman; we can tell it’s her, but we aren’t given a close-up of her face to beat us over the head with the information. It’s assumed that we’re smart enough to have noticed. A human rights activist in a brutalized African country is shot by a child with a machine gun; in the moment before he dies, he tells the kid, “It’s O.K. It’s O.K.” It’s strange, but it seems right.
More importantly, there’s Sean Penn, who, despite the fact that conventional wisdom considers him one of the best American film actors of his generation, actually is one of the best American film actors of his generation. Even when it becomes disappointingly clear that the climax to “The Interpreter” is going to be a scene we’ve all seen several dozen times, Penn almost redeems it, just in the way he delivers the lines ―one line in particular.
Even the stuff about peace, brotherhood and turning away from the path of violence is reasonably understated. It’s nice to get a thriller once in a while that’s intended for people with longer attention spans.

The Interpreter
Drama / English
128 min.
Now playing

by David Moll
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