Saturday, April 16, 2005

Engagingly silly suspense: “The Interpreter”

Set your credulity to max and scepticism to zero, and this is surprisingly enjoyable and decidely entertaining.

OK, a UN-based human-rights themed thrilled just shouldn’t work. Especially when it features the following:
Nicole Kidman’s quasi South African accent as a UN translator with a mysterious past;

Sean Penn as a gun-toting hard bitten Secret Service Agent with a tender side;

some dodgy politics (a CIA briefing on African independence movements calmly describes their inevitable descent into autocracy – such a backward continent, diplomatic protection detail often involves protecting Asian diplomats from lap-dancers);

more than the odd glitch on international law; and

some awful dialogue moments and clumsily manouevered plot elements that almost jump out with a red flag and go “look at me! I’ll be relevant later on!”

This should only be compounded by a truly contrived plot device: a translator - by sheer fluke - overhears an assassination plot, a whispered conversation conducted in a room filled with microphones in an obscure African dialect she just happens to understand.

This sets the film rolling when we realise a dictator from the Kidman character’s fictitious African home country may be assassinated in the General Assembly as he gives an address to attempt to avoid the Security Council referring him to the International Criminal Court. (Don’t ask.)

Why does it work? A wonderful sense of urgency, tension and menace pervades the film. Some scenes are wound tight enough to burst. Penn and Kidman bring a surprising amount of depth to their roles as individuals damaged by loss and struggling with their respective cynicism and idealism and mutual mistrust.

Even if the detail on international law and relations is occasionally a bit thin, the resonances with present international debates (human rights, international criminal law, the role of the UN) is engaging and the UN building in New York makes a unique set that astonishingly has never been used before in film.

I also have it from my flatmate who used to intern at the US delegation to the Security Council that many of the extras are genuine UN delegates who insisted on playing themselves during filming.

And if it inspires a new generation of idealists about the UN's potential in international affairs, that can only be a good thing.

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