The Interpreter is a slick, suspenseful political thriller with a huge problem at its center: Nicole Kidman. Kidman plays Silvia Broome, a United Nations translator born of a British mother and white African father and raised in the fictional, strife-torn nation of Matobo. Silvia came to work for the U.N. out of her belief that diplomacy, not violence, was the solution to the world’s ills. One night she returns to the interpreters’ booth after hours to pick up a bag and happens to overhear a conversation in Ku, a (fictional) dialect spoken in Matobo and a few other countries in southern Africa. Two men are planning to kill the Matoban president, Dr. Edmond Zuwanie, during his address to the U.N. General Assembly announcing democratic reforms, a speech Zuwanie hopes will forestall efforts to bring him before the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide. It seems the Matoban military, under Zuwanie’s orders, has been massacring the followers of two revolutionary leaders, Ajene Xola (Curtiss I’Cook) and Kuman-Kuman (George Harris). The U.S. Secret Service’s diplomatic detachment sends in agents Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) and Dot Woods (Catherine Keener) to investigate. Initially they’re suspicious of Silvie’s story, and their doubts only deepen when their investigation turns up evidence of her connection to one of the revolutionary leaders.
The problem here isn’t Kidman’s performance, which is a well-wrought balance of restraint and indignation, or her accent, which captures the inflections and the percussive consonants of many English-speaking Africans. It isn’t her glamour, though she looks in every scene as if her hairdresser is hovering just off-camera, and it isn’t even the impossibility of believing Kidman as a gun-toting revolutionary. The problem is quite simply that she’s white.
The decision to use a white actress in the lead upends the movie, changing the meanings of countless scenes and raising issues that the film doesn’t bother to address. What’s intended to be about genocide becomes about race. Rancid whiffs of colonialism hang in the air, unaddressed except for one truly topsy-turvy moment when Silvia complains that the color of her skin was “inconvenient” for her former lover, a black revolutionary leader. What a burden it is to be white.
It’s particularly troubling that the film evokes the massacres in Rwanda and the Sudan as backstory, elements that give the film that ripped-from-the-headlines feel of Lifetime movies and bad “Law and Order” episodes, while setting up a beautiful, healthy, financially secure white woman as the face of African suffering. Throughout the film, we’re expected to empathize with Silvia over the deaths of people close to her and the anguish she feels over the genocide in Matobo. This works as long as it’s kept on an intimate, personal level. Kidman communicates her loss through Silvia’s refusal to address it openly; we see she’s a woman who’s survived by putting the past out of her mind, envisioning herself as a different person with no ties to that world. But when Silvia must make a larger statement, particularly when she’s accusing Dr. Zuwanie (who’s black) of betraying and slaughtering his countrymen, there’s a powerful sense of dislocation. How are we to feel that he owes anything to this daughter of colonialism? Watching that scene, I started picturing Alfre Woodard as Silvia and thinking how much better the movie in my head was.
Charles Randolph, the film’s original screenwriter (Scott Frank [Minority Report] and Steven Zaillian [Schindler’s List] rewrote significant chunks), said in a recent Entertainment Weekly feature, “I chose a white African because I felt that’s a story that really hasn’t been told. I think we’ve historically dismissed white Africans as racists. And I wanted to portray someone who loved her country, felt an intimate connection to it, but didn’t happen to be black. I never really worried about it that much.” Yeah, I’m getting pretty sick of all these big Hollywood movies about the experience of black Africans — how about some variety?
On its surface, the movie is steadfastly PC, making many supporting characters black, never openly condescending to them, making the shadiest villain white, even giving Silvia that black ex-lover. (Though we never see them together, so no one has to be unsettled — or turned-on — by the contrast of dark lips against Kidman’s porcelain skin. Wouldn’t it be fun if there were a flashback and he were played by Lenny Kravitz?) But there’s no escaping the fact that we’re watching a beautiful woman with lily-white skin being menaced by large, scowling black men, an image that reaches back to white men’s antique fears about black potency. And we’re being asked to identify with her love of Africa. How friggin’ schizophrenic is that?
If one is willing to overlook the several elephants in the room, there are elements of the film to enjoy. The director, Sydney Pollack, keeps the pace lively while still allowing for quiet, intimate scenes between the major set pieces, and he never lets the suspense or paranoia slacken. Many scenes are cross-cut with simultaneous events happening elsewhere, so that we’re constantly busy making connections and figuring out who’s up to what.
It’s nice to see Sean Penn playing a smart, competent character for once, and he gives his role interesting shadings. He’s a bit stuck — like all movie law-enforcement officers, Keller’s bearing a heavy weight of personal tragedy that will inevitably connect with the theme at the film’s climax — but Penn doesn’t get carried away with the pathos, nor does he get tangled up in macho posturing. He leaves that to Catherine Keener, who plays Keller’s partner as the most hard-bitten agent in the movie, a woman who got where she is by being tougher than any man around her. Pollack also develops memorable bits for a number of minor characters, particularly one who has the misfortune to be in the middle of the film’s most shocking sequence — an act of terrorism as horrifying as anything I’ve seen in film.
Pollack is a New Yorker, and his view of the city is that of an uxorious lover. Manhattan seems to preen before his camera; even grimy alleyways look glamorous. (The cinematographer is Darius Khondji, a favorite of grime fans David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.) Pollack persuaded the U.N. to permit filming inside its headquarters for the first time ever, and he makes the most of the opportunity, capturing the grandeur of the General Assembly chambers and the ’50s modernist elegance of its lobbies and lounges. The movie takes an extremely pro-U.N. stance, suggesting that it’s the major, perhaps the only, venue for serious, positive changes in world affairs. It’s a timely shot in the arm for the beleaguered institution, a reminder of its humanitarian goals and an argument for boosting its waning influence. Perhaps John Bolton will have a chance to catch a showing while the Senate is in recess.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()