The Interpreter (rated PG-13 for violence, some sexual content, and brief strong language) is a stately, pseudo-old-school political thriller that is almost completely derailed by its politics.
Nicole Kidman plays Silvia, a UN interpreter who overhears what sounds like a plot to assassinate Dr. Zuwanie, a ruthless African dictator of the fictional nation of Matobo. Dr. Zuwanie is scheduled to address the General Assembly, so Silvia relays her fears to Secret Service agents Tobin (Sean Penn) and Dot (Katherine Keener). Tobin begins to follow the threads suggesting the assassination plot may be real, some of which lead back to Silvia, a white African with a mysterious history in Matobo.
The Interpreter distinguishes itself by avoiding the high-octane, adrenaline-rush conventions of modern thrillers-leaving quite a bit of space between action sequences. That could be a good thing, but those plodding spaces are filled with the unconvincingly developing relationship between Tobin and Silvia. She professes unwavering faith in the mission of the UN and the march of diplomacy; he's weakly skeptical. Considering recent events, this could be fodder for an interesting dynamic, but that's where the political part of this thriller fails the movie.
It's not that the film becomes especially didactic-it's that it lazily takes its underlying assumptions for granted. How well Silvia and Tobin's relationship and, really, the climax of the film resonates with viewers will depend largely on how closely they identify with Silvia's faith in the idealized international community represented at the UN.
Despite an almost complete lack of political tension, there are some well-constructed action scenes in The Interpreter, particularly a Hitchcockian sequence that places an alarming number of principal players on one New York City bus. That and some attractive cinematography make The Interpreter modestly interesting, but far from thrilling.