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Cinemalphabet: I is for The Interpreter (2005)

February 9, 2011

Roger Ebert posed this question as a footnote to his review of the final directorial effort – feature length film wise – of the late, great, incomparable Sydney Pollack:

Note: I don’t want to get Politically Correct, I know there are many white Africans, and I admire Kidman’s performance. But I couldn’t help wondering why her character had to be white. I imagined someone like Angela Bassett in the role, and wondered how that would have played. If you see the movie, run that through your mind.

Ebert’s review is thoughtful – as always – but I couldn’t help noticing based on his way in which he couched his astute observation about the lack of racial diversity in the films of Pollack, how uncomfortable he seemed even mentioning it. As a Pollack fan – hell, he’s my favorite director – it’s definitely a notion that has occurred to be many, many times and usually been accompanied by a similar level of discomfort. Oh sure I could be quick to point out he did helm a documentary of the making of Aretha Franklin’s landmark gospel recording “Amazing Grace”, but then it seems as though I’m trying too hard. But hey, they got brown folks a plenty up in this piece!

*Insert Awkward Transition*

Nicole Kidman – doing a serviceable South African dialect, though she’s no Gina Bellam – and Sean Penn star in this skillful thriller. While Ebert thought both were good in their respective roles – her as the Interpreter and him as a federal agent she comes into contact with – I found both of their performances to be a little phoned in. Sometimes I tend to find Kidman’s flat affect somewhat grating, particularly when she’s asked to demonstrate a lot of emotionality. Naomi Watts would have been much more interesting in the role (if it had to be a blond lady) and Watts had already established her chemistry with Penn in 21 Grams. Penn, on the other hand, tends to be way too showy and “actory”. You can feel and taste his acting and that too gets on my nerves. I haven’t really liked his performances recently. In fact the last time I really liked him in a film was The Falcon and the Snowman. Ever since Penn went “legit” and stopped punching out cameramen and getting live at the drop of the hat, it seems like all his intensity gets channeled into his performances. I mean I guess that’s great for those who find his recent work entertaining. However, I just leaves me rather cold and unimpressed. It’s a bummer, because I do like me a rowdy ass actor!

The Interpreter reminds me a lot of Pollack films such as Absence of Malice and a certain degree Out of Africa, not in terms of subject matter, but the leisurely pace in which the plot unfolds. The Interpreter unfolds like a silk dinner napkin over the lap of someone impossibly refined and impossibly rich. This isn’t to suggest it’s boring or devoid of suspenseful scenes; there are plenty. Xena help me, I hate using chess metaphors, because it makes it seems as though I’m trying to project something that doesn’t exist, but that’s the best way to describe the film. It’s not as precise as a Swiss watch; it’s strategic like a – wait for it – chess game.

That said, the way The Interpreter was marketed it’s clear the logical conclusion we are to make is the film is a companion to Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor. Sure the connections are there – filmed in NYC, a political thriller – but those connections are tenuous at best. Thematically, The Interpreter falls more along the lines of films such as The Day of the Jackal and Z, though it’s not nearly as provocative as either film. And that’s cool. Hell, even David Bowie isn’t making Ziggy Stardust anymore. He’s already done it. Pollack has already made the “say something” political thriller, so there’s nothing wrong with opting to make a gorgeous, engaging, elegant thriller instead.

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