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The Interpreter (2005)

The truth needs no translation.

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 128 minutes

US Certificate: PG-13 UK Certificate: 12a

One night in United Nation Headquarters, interpreter Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) happens to overhear a whisper from the darkened floor of the General Assembly below: “The Teacher will never leave this room alive”. She soon discovers that 'the Teacher' is Dr Edmund Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), President of Matobo, who is coming to the UN in a week to fend off charges of genocide. Federal Agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) is assigned to Silvia – but as he investigates her history in Matobo and her links to Zuwanie's political enemies, he begins to suspect her involvement in the conspiracy – even if the tragedies which she has suffered in the past, and the way that she has chosen to face them, resonate with recent experiences in his own personal life. With the clock ticking and the political crisis exploding on New York's streets, the woman of words and the man of action come to realise that they can learn from each other.

Although the UN Headquarters were built on Manhattan's East Side as long ago as 1946, no production besides Sydney Pollack's 'The Interpreter' has ever been granted full access to its interior spaces – even the esteemed Alfred Hitchcock was turned down for 'North by Northwest'. The reason for the UN's sudden openness is not difficult to discern – for at a time when America prefers unilateral action to international consensus, the UN has unprecedented need for some good PR, and 'The Interpreter' offers an elegant argument for its principles, as well as a thinly disguised critique of the dangers inherent in current US policy.

At the core of 'The Interpreter' is an ongoing conversation between Silvia and Tobin about the appropriate way to respond to horrific wrongs, reflecting the different approaches of the UN and the US to the problems of the world. Silvia favours quiet diplomacy and the slow judicial processes of the International Criminal Court (an institution whose authority the US refuses to acknowledge, as the film makes clear for anyone who does not know this) – in short, she embodies the values of the organisation for which she works. Tobin, on the other hand, prefers swift vengeance and the way of the gun. The contrast between them is brought out neatly by a diptych of scenes: from Silvia translating speeches on human rights, the film cuts to Tobin lecturing his men on how to kill perpetrators quickly. In the end, though, there is little doubt which point of view the two characters, and the film itself, have come to endorse.

If it is a very real UN that accommodates 'The Interpreter', the film's other pivotal setting, the Southern African country of Matobo, is entirely fictitious – and while one can imagine that its civil unrest and political brutality are inspired by Zimbabwe's (there is, after all, a famous national park in Zimbabwe named Matobo Hills), what is more striking, and more subversive, is the way that the state's most inhuman atrocities are defended by arguments that American viewers will find uncomfortably familiar. For Zuwanie justifies the widescale murder of civilians as a necessary measure against the forces of 'terrorism'. It is as though Matobo, a country born from idealistic dreams, but now divided, backward, corrupt and impoverished, is the US's older sibling – a glimpse of where the politics of fear and preemptive aggression, unrestrained by international opinion or law, can eventually lead.

Throw into the mix two very fine central performances, and you have a gripping and intelligent political thriller that, unusually for these troubled times, promotes articulation of the jawbone over kneejerk reflex.

It's Got: Unfettered access to the UN complex in New York (the film was shot there nights and weekends); Nicole Kidman sporting an Out of Africa accent; Sean Penn proving once again that he is one of the best actors of his generation; a hilariously droll Catherine Keener as Agent Dot Woods; and director Sydney Pollack appearing as the, er, director of the Secret Service Dignitary Protection Squad.

It Needs: To be seen by anyone who is casually dismissive of the UNs work.


A gripping and intelligent political thriller with a liberal dose of PR for the UN.