Africa is a land of intrigue, partly because it has been victimized by colonialism. Once the European powers released their grip on the continent, many of Africa's countries were taken over by dictators who continued to rule with an iron fist.
Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman in "The Interpretter," which opened last Friday. (Universal)
"The Interpreter" uses that background for its story.
Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) is a United Nations interpreter who overhears a conversation about a conspiracy to assassinate Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), president of Matabo. With Zuwanie coming to deliver an address in response to reports he has authorized ethnic cleansing in his country, Broome tells U.N. security about the conspiracy.
Enter Secret Service Agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) and his partner Dee Woods (Catherine Keener), who provide security for visiting heads of state to the U.N.
At the beginning, Keller and Woods don't believe Broome. She grew up in Matabo and remains a mysterious character, despite insisting she is at the U.N. to work for peaceful change in her homeland. They believe she might be making the conspiracy up—but when her apartment is burgled, the agents rethink their opinion.
With the day of Zuwanie's visit approaching, the movie shifts to showing preparations for his stay. We learn about Matabo's political workings and who would benefit if Zuwanie were assassinated.
In time, Keller and Broome get romantically involved. Broome mourns parents dead in Africa, while Keller grieves openly for his recently deceased wife. He even calls his apartment at different times of the day just to hear his wife's disembodied voice.
Sydney Pollack, who made the political thriller "Three Days of the Condor" and a number of other terrific movies, directs "The Interpreter." When it comes making movies, he knows how to make good choices and film great scenes, and therefore make wonderful movies. But even great directors sometimes suffer in the face of other moviemaking elements.
"The Interpreter" suffers because of the story—specifically, because of too much information about the characters. Many of today's movies don't have enough character development, but this one has too much. When a movie is about political intrigue, we need to focus on the plot and not the personal lives of characters.
"The Interpreter" has story hooks easily deduced by any viewer. To make up for this shortcoming, the writers packed in more about the characters. But this genre does not need character quirks as much as plot mystery.
Sean Penn's performance doesn't help the movie either. Penn is a well-known method actor who depends on expressing strong emotion. But say "secret service agent" and strong emotion doesn't come to mind. He is overwrought—not stoic like his agent should be.
And you really have to suspend disbelief a few times—like when Broome gets injured and Keller takes her not to a hospital, but to his apartment for more soul-baring.
"The Interpreter" has a great cast and director, and one hopes it would be much better. Sadly, it is not.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, some sexual content and brief strong language.
Director: Sydney Pollack
Writers: Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian
Cast: Silvia Broome: Nicole Kidman; Tobin Keller: Sean Penn; Dot Woods: Catherine Keener; Nils Lud: Jesper Christensen; Philippe: Yvan Attal; Zuwanie: Earl Cameron; Kuman-Kuman: George Harris; Marcus: Michael Wright.
The movie's official Web site is here.