In their indispensable reference book Fifty Years of American Cinema, critic Jean-Pierre Coursodon and filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier despair at making sense of the strange career of director Sydney Pollack. They note the contradiction between his evident sincerity and his "penchant for cheap dramatic effects", noting that "his talent and his ambition do not always go well together".
And they are unable to comprehend how the guy who started out with sombre films like Castle Keep (1969) ended up turning out slick blockbusters like The Firm (1993).
In many ways, it has been Pollack's enviable ability to work with the biggest stars (Streisand, Redford, Cruise, Streep) that has led to both his commercial glory and his artistic damnation. It is doubtless the curious combination of star power and topical relevance that has lured him back to the director's chair for the glossy but empty The Interpreter.
As a political thriller, it fleetingly recalls Pollack's better days in Three Days of the Condor (1975). African-born Silvia (Nicole Kidman) works as a translator for the United Nations. She professes belief in rational negotiation, but her troubled past suggests to federal agent Tobin (Sean Penn) that she may not be what she seems.
Silvia overhears, after hours in the main chamber of the UN, what seems to be a plan to assassinate Zuwanie (Briton Earl Cameron), bloodthirsty President of the fictional Matobo (a vague composite of elements of Zimbabwe and Mozambique). But Tobin has a tough job trying to figure out just who is after whom in the round of threats, deaths, schemes and explosions that follow.
Pollack may have fond memories of the striking design and tricky plot of Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959) in mind – he even dares to illustrate the Master's famous, oft-repeated lesson about a bomb on a bus – but The Interpreter never approaches that class. Fussily scripted by Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian, the film expends much energy building up heavy-handed, supposedly profound language games (such as the interchangeability of the words 'dead' and 'gone'). Even worse, it strains to create any kind of sexy frisson between Kidman and Penn, by unwisely trying to equalise Siliva's politicised past and Tobin's recent woe in losing his wife. Rarely has a Hollywood film struggled with such an unwieldy amount of backstory (including having to invent and convey the entirety of Matobon history, language and culture).
Kidman's accent sometimes wanders (between real and fictional tongues!), but she puts her striking combination of outward poise and internal intensity to good use here. However, she is not well matched with Penn, whose odd version of the Method school of acting leads him to look choked up and on the verge of tears every time a strong emotion looms.
© Adrian Martin April 2005