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Just tonight, the scheduled Tarantino episode of C.S.I. was postponed because of the recent incidents in London. A few months ago a similar thing happened with respect to the British TV series Ultimate Force because of the East European horrors it depicted. We do not always notice when films (or DVDs) get the same treatment—we just assume that they have been delayed for some mundane reason. However, occasionally, those more politically oriented movies do get pulled and shelved for being just that little bit too realistic and perhaps hitting one or two nerves. The Interpreter has had a strange production history followed by an even weirder release history, culminating in its imminent UK release unusually several months ahead of the US. After all of that, however, I would not be surprised if it got pulled over here because one of its scenes strikes a little too close to the bone after last week’s atrocities. I think that it is a shame to let terrorism and global atrocities interfere with movies, especially when that tends to impliedly criticise the more realistic movies out there just for being too close to the truth. Why not post a warning before the movie, on TV, on DVD, or in the cinema and let us make up our own minds?

Interpreter, The
Silvia Broome is an interpreter at the United Nations. One evening she returns to the building to collect a bag and overhears a conversation that she was not supposed to be privy to. Before long she finds her life in danger and becomes confused by the Secret Service response to the matter, finding that they are more worried about the political consequences of her revelation than the threat to her life. However one agent takes particular interest in her plight, finding himself more than a little enamoured by her vulnerability but simultaneously puzzled by the secrets that she is hiding. But will he be able to get to the truth before it’s too late?

“I’d rather make the mistake of believing her, than the bigger one of not.”

Sydney Pollack has forged a solid thriller here after an extended directorial hiatus. He is, after all, the man who won an Oscar for Out of Africa and fashioned John Grisham’s one original book, The Firm, into a solid Tom Cruise thriller. It has been five years since his last film—the paltry Random Hearts, not a patch on his previous magnificence—which gives this movie added anticipatory importance. Here he got to work with the great Sean Penn and, supposedly, one of the best actresses in the world, Nicole Kidman. The result should have been a classic, but the reality is that he missed the mark.

The Interpreter has all the makings of a classic thriller but, unfortunately, its political aspirations are its downfall. I think that, unfortunately, politics often have this kind of effect on thrillers—especially recent movies where everybody is too busy trying not to offend anybody that the end result is actually almost apolitical. Look at Tears of the Sun and its horrendously forced closing coda, or Wesley Snipes’ flop The Art of War, where he was supposed to be the United Nations’ answer to James Bond. The reality is that there is no point in trying to make the UN ‘hip’ because it never will be. The UN was set up to be a union between nearly two hundred countries and, in being ‘diplomatic’ with regard to so many varying opinions, it is often hard to avoid comparisons to sitting on the proverbial fence. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not belittling the importance of the UN—it is just that they would have been better off leaving it as an interesting backdrop rather than trying to complicate the story with a convoluted political subplot. The Interpreter is ninety minutes’ worth of decent Hitchcockian thriller hampered by thirty minutes of pseudo-political guff unnecessarily involving Kidman’s character.

“You think that not getting caught in a lie is the same as telling the truth.”

It does not help that the whole production was plagued with setbacks right from the get-go. Initially they could not get permission to film at the UN Headquarters and were forced to start work on a replica set. When this proved too costly, they renewed their efforts to get into the real building and eventually succeeded, but not without having to agree with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan that the film would not ‘conflict with UN values’. Then one of the stars, Nicole Kidman, brought production to a halt so that she could re-shoot scenes for The Stepford Wives because it received poor results at test screenings. The Interpreter itself originally had a script with a completely different ending that Pollack did not like, so several script doctors were brought onboard to re-structure the whole story—many of them working on it independently. After lengthy editing post-production, even the end result was not received well at test screenings, leading to yet more re-shoots for Kidman. It is a mottled production history that must take some of the blame for the disjointed finished product that was released.

Interpreter, The
Then we have the cast. Nicole Kidman is up there alongside Julia Roberts as one of the world’s most popular actresses. Unfortunately I do not think I have really appreciated her in a film since she first popped up opposite Sam Neill in the excellent thriller, Dead Calm. Sure, she looks good, but that is not enough. Give me Naomi Watts or Jennifer Connelly any day of the week. Here it does not help that Kidman is extremely unemotional with a part you would expect her to show some range in. She screams once, raises her voice once and smiles twice, sometimes making me wonder whether she was worried that her ‘perfect’ visage would be ruined if she risked showing some kind of emotion. I understand that her Afrikaans interpreter has seen some atrocities and become desensitised to some things and that, as her character states, ‘people handle fears in different ways’, but it is just not very interesting to watch her behave I such a detached way. It also did not help that they gave her character an unnecessarily complicated political depth that seems overly contrived.

“I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know how honest I can be with you.”

Sean Penn, on the other hand, playing a Secret Service Agent who inherently has to remain detached and emotionless, actually has a much more interesting character. After some truly superb performances in the last couple of years—Mystic River and 21 Grams—it is clear that Penn has matured into a great actor, which is understandable considering his excellent offerings as a younger star. Here he brings gravitas to the role of Tobin Keller, an agent haunted by a recent personal crisis but resoundingly professional in his dealings with this ultra-political threat. Penn is the best thing about the movie.

Aside from the two main players we get some solid supporting performances. The underused and under-appreciated Catherine Keener, who shined in Being John Malkovich, gets stuck in the underdeveloped role of Keller’s Secret Service Agent partner who may or may not just have feelings for her troubled colleague. George Harris, who was excellent in Layer Cake, also has a bit of a cameo role and we even get director Sydney Pollack himself popping up—not for the first time in his own movie. They all do remarkably well but, despite best efforts, nothing can make up for a disjointed, overly contrived story, a disappointing performance from the female lead and an anticlimactic ending. So the end result is a perfectly watchable thriller with some sporadic tension, occasionally interesting ideas and largely solid performances that just does not quite live up to expectations.

Interpreter, The
The Interpreter is presented in a flawless 2.35:1 aspect ratio anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer. I simply don’t think I have come across a movie that looks this good recently. The detail is fantastic, with particular attention to facial expressions but just as much observation of the wider shots. There was no grain that I could distinguish; no unintentional softness—i.e. obviously some shots had a focal point and the background was left slightly out of focus. The best example of the quality of this transfer is during the polygraph sequence, but you will find few moments in the film that fail to showcase its excellence. The colour scheme can be quite clinical, particularly in the Government offices and U.N. locations, but the African scenes and general ‘streets of New York’ sequences (and the luscious green gardens) do offer a broader, more realistic palette. The colours are never less than well observed, with blacks that are deep and dark and solid. It is a brilliant transfer of benchmark quality.

We get a similarly solid audio track, although not quite as exemplary as the video transfer. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, the all-important dialogue is crystal-clear, mainly emanating from the centre speaker. We get a decent score permeating across the fronts and rears and some nicely observed directionality—particularly during the bar sequences. The sporadic action allows for both jumpy soundtrack noises and more powerful effects, which again utilise the six-speaker array to its fullest effect. We even get a bit of rumbling bass from midway through – in order to heighten the tension. It is a very good if not exceptional mix that perfectly suits the movie.

First up there is an audio commentary with the director Sydney Pollack who comes across as an extremely interesting commentator. He talks about filming in Africa and at the UN, discusses his various filming preferences including how he likes to continue telling the story over the opening credits. Due to the huge amount of post-production work that was done, he spends a great deal of the time talking about the re-shoots and alternate versions. It is simply astounding to hear how much work went into changing the original story before filming, writing the script whilst filming and then changing it all again during the editing process. There are some occasional pauses, but overall Pollack is one of the most interesting commentators that I have come across, offering some nice observations and in-depth background into the colourful production.

The ‘Alternative Ending’ is about three minutes’ long and merely changes the way in which the closing political coda was delivered at the end—not improving the anticlimax in any way. There are also three deleted scenes, totalling three and a half minutes of footage. Two are largely unimportant but the third offers quite a nice development of Catherine Keener’s character, although I do like the subtle implications in the final film rather than this explicit statement.

Interpreter, The
The ‘Sydney Pollack at Work – From Concept to Cutting Room’ featurette runs for ten minutes and has the director himself talking in interview about how hard it is to make a film that is suitable for release. Clearly he encountered a great deal of problems over the two years it took to make this movie, expressing how it was never an enjoyable process. He goes on to talk about his history in acting school, his lack of success as an actor and how he went on to teach at acting school, which led to his directorial work. It is quite interesting to hear how he likes living alternative lives through his films and the featurette is definitely worth a look.

The ‘Interpreting Pan & Scan vs. Widescreen’ featurette is possibly the most valuable extra feature on the disc, even though it is only five minutes long. Here he discusses the benefits of shooting in widescreen (Panavision) versus fullscreen (Spherical) and how he likes the former because it gives the audience more information on screen. His argument is well founded: if he or any other director shoots a film in a broad scope, it is because they have decided to present the information to the viewer in a particular way. So if somebody comes along and pans and scans that movie so that it can fill your TV screen, they are effectively altering the director’s vision. Hopefully anybody uninformed enough to still believe in fullscreen will be convinced by this featurette, which also offers some illustrative screen-shots to visually reinforce the argument.

‘The Ultimate Movie Set – The United Nations’ is basically an eight-minute look inside the prestigious UN building in New York, with discussions from the crew about filming there and the impact it had on both the production and the effect of the movie. The director talks about convincing Kofi Annan and filming in the various arenas—the War Council and the General Assembly—and there are also brief interview snippets with Kidman towards the end. One minor quibble was the fact that Pollack states that he demystifies the UN and its mission through this movie when in fact I know no more or less about the UN after having watched this movie—I think perhaps he is exaggerating the movie’s importance somewhat.

'A Day in the Life of an Interpreter' features eight minutes of interview with a couple of interpreters who were advisors on the movie. We get more Kidman talking about what she learned for the role and Pollack discussing the important differences between an interpreter and a translator. It is quite interesting seeing what these people have to do, how hard it is and what they do to keep themselves up to date with the slang and the new words in a language. The whole thing is slightly marred by the fact that the African country and language in the movie was fictitious—Kidman actually learned to interpret a language that did not exist. They might as well have used Klingon.

Finally we get two slightly random trailers—the new and unnecessary Pride and Prejudice interpretation, with Keira Knightley, along with the Special Edition DVD release of the Bourne Identity, but no sign of the theatrical trailer for the Interpreter itself. (I suspect this was because Pollack did not like the fact it gave away a key sequence from the movie, but there was no point in not including it because the front cover gives away the said sequence anyway!)

Interpreter, The
I had high expectations for The Interpreter but the end result was merely an above-average thriller with a prestigious setting. There were plenty of reasons for this disappointment but, as is often the case, it all basically boils down to politics and making things just too damn contrived. Still, there is plenty to enjoy and, as long as you don’t expect too much, it is definitely worth your time. This release, despite its quick turnaround months ahead of the US, is privy to a near-perfect transfer, a solid audio mix and is simply burgeoning with decent extras. If you have reservations then I would recommend a rental first to test the waters but if you think you’re gonna enjoy it or have already seen and loved it on the Big Screen then so it is a no-brainer purchase—you’re unlikely to find a better edition than this.