Nicole Kidman is the go-to actress for a certain kind of grownup movie, and she keeps proving why she gets those juicy roles. It's because she can do almost anything. She has a unique knack for letting a wide range of characters live inside her; they radiate through that translucent skin.
This time she's Silvia, a U.N. interpreter with a murky agenda and half the goons of an African country on her slim tail. Sean Penn is Keller, the federal agent assigned to figure out what she's hiding. Is she simply a victim? Or is grief driving her to assassination?
Grieving is the appropriate mode in this middling Sydney Pollack effort; the leads' backstories are littered with the corpses of loved ones. Keller has just lost his wife in a car crash, Silvia most of her family back home in Africa, under the bloody rule of the man who is about to deliver an address to the General Assembly. Add Keller's private anguish to her political rage, throw in the ticking time bomb of the international-intrigue plot, and there's enough narrative for three fine films.
But not enough for The Interpreter. The thriller pieces feel assembled rather than organic: this from The Manchurian Candidate, that from Pollack's own Three Days of the Condor, the rest from the Robert Ludlum oeuvre. And the issue of whether a genocidal dictator will be killed doesn't have much emotional weight. Nor does the moral question--Can a person do good by killing a bad man?--mean a lot when a star is pointing a gun at a defenseless supporting player.
Once you scuttle hopes of Hitchcock-level espionage, you can enjoy the suspense of half a dozen people with murderous intent squeezed onto a Brooklyn bus; the geometry of stares, whispered messages and sudden shifts of body weight is well calibrated. Penn keeps you wondering whether he's going to im- or explode. Catherine Keener shines in support as Penn's sidekick and just about the only sensible person in the movie.
Then there's Kidman, who, when she's not being upstaged by restless strands of her long hair, effortlessly commands an audience's eyes, suspicion and fascination. --By Richard Corliss