Lost in Translation?

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The Interpreterdir Sydney Pollack128 mins
At one point in The Interpreter, the Secret Service agent at the centre of the investigations, Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), remarks that around the proceedings swirl “layers of language signifying nothing”. He, in one turn of phrase, summarises what is most absent from the core of this thriller: any semblance of significance in among the supposed weight it believes itself to bear. The plot focuses on United Nations interpreter Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) who, alone in her sound booth one night, overhears an assassination plot concerning Zuwanie, the president of the invented African state, Matobo. To divulge any more would be to disservice Sydney Pollack’s impressive sequencing; what can be said is that the scenes which follow are the stuff of terse, competently cut thrillers.
The difference here, though, is that in among the expected stock situations , are woven the threads of subtle device that elevate the film from standard popcorn fluff. Snatches of dialogue are mediated by a certain disquiet that is found only in translation; long takes of beautifully shot montage are imbued with a relentless sense of oppression by renowned cinematographer Darius Khondji, evocatively mirroring the crux of the interpreter’s dilemma. He conveys the claustrophobic atmosphere in his excellent use of the UN’s cavernous First Avenue headquarters, lighting each frame with a view to portraying the relentless pitching of the elements, and in doing so avoids the visual banalities normally associated with the genre.
From the cocooned glass box in which Silvia presides high over the UN assembly floor, to her first barbed exchange with Keller regarding the excesses of communication, there is present the looming influence of a constantly mediated world. Pollack allows for a suppressed threat to emerge here with Keller retorting, “Your profession is playing with words”. It works in harmony with the well-paced paranoid tension created by editor William Steinkamp; the motif culminates magnificently during a highly-charged, quasi-voyeuristic scenario, in which Keller and Silvia talk to each other on the phone while knowingly engaging in a two-way surveillance set-up (a fitting metaphor for sexual exchange, perhaps?).
It is, in fact, the on-screen rapport between Kidman and Penn, two of the finest actors working in film today, that lends The Interpreter its spirit. Cocooned within the generic confines of the film lies a superbly acted chamber piece courtesy of the recent Oscar winners. Pollack exploits the contrast in this most unusual of double-acts with real verve, throwing the characters ino relief with dual-like dischord.
Nicole Kidman is stunning as the interpreter in question. With a pitchperfect Afrikaans accent, her Silvia has a certain reserve that, importantly, allows one to buy into the suspicion; all the while she beautifully manages the tightrope walk between exotic character actor and dominating lead player. Her performance would sit comfortably alongside her best. And her costar, Sean Penn is more than affecting as the cop with a conscience, all tormented and wrinkled-browed. Their penultimate scene together on a park bench along the Hudson is a veritable acting masterclass, where contained emotions are purged in spectacular fashion. The chemistry they exude transcends even the precincts of such capable Hollywood fare; it is a double performance that really does belong to a greater film.
Yet for all the artistic brownie points attained by The Interpreter, there also exist incredible drawbacks. For a film so concerned with international diplomacy and relations (indeed at times playing like a loveletter to the UN), it has a problematically condescending view towards Africa, from the marginalisation of the ethnic characters, to the hackneyed pan-African soundtrack. For the film’s opening, sub-Saharan cliches are also relayed through a dusty, mirage-obscured, sun-scorched lens; it is unfortunate that this is the only glimpse of the strikingly fictional Matobo throughout the entire running time. Yes, the prologue is successful in establishing enigmas that later propel the plot, but these are subsequently dissipated by the clumsy, saccharine postscript which helps to make the whole exercise feel rather implausible come the rolling of the credits. A piece of many contradictions both inherent to the production and inherited by its on-screen translation, The Interpreter allows for the audience, be it for better or for worse, to provide the final transcript.ARCHIVE: 0th TT 2005

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