The Interpreter

How good a director is Sydney Pollack? So good he can take an ordinary political thriller like “The Interpreter” and make it seem like something special. Why, there are moments when you actually think you’re being thrilled!

You’re not, though, at least not often. The setup is basic, the complications and twists are nothing new, and there are few surprises in the action. Yet with Oscar-winners Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn in the leads, not to mention the Oscar-winner behind the camera, you get a classy, accessible drama that feels much spicier than it is. It’s like a high-falutin’ “Bourne Identity.”

Kidman plays Silvia Broome, an introverted polyglot who provides translating services for the United Nations. Among the languages she has mastered is Ku, the (fictional) tribal dialect of the (fictional) African nation of Matobo, where she spent many of her formative years before her parents and sister were killed by the warlord who now runs the place.

One night when most of the U.N. is empty, she overhears a whispered conversation in Ku, the gist of which she understands to mean that the aforementioned warlord, Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), is to be assassinated when he addresses the General Assembly later in the week. More immediately troubling for her is that she believes the conspirators know she has overheard them, putting her in jeopardy, if they know that she can understand Ku.

Penn arrives on the scene as Tobin Keller, a humorless Secret Service agent assigned to protect visiting dignitaries whose duty now is to assess the validity of Silvia’s claim. Is there a plot to kill Zuwanie? Is Silvia herself involved? Has she misunderstood what she heard — or, worse, made it up altogether? He eventually decides to trust her, saying, “I’d rather make the mistake of believing her than the worse mistake of not believing her.”

Kidman works her usual ethereal magic, making Silvia cold and reserved, yet still connecting with the audience. We can’t quite get inside her head, but we sympathize with her enough to keep trying. Penn, meanwhile, remains oddly aloof, only revealing himself to us when he wants to break down into tears and remind us what a Great Actor he is. I believe Silvia as a real person, not Keller.

Pollack, working from a hooray-for-the-United-Nations script by action veterans Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian, takes us through the investigations, ominous threats and shocking discoveries that generally accompany this sort of thing, and he does it with a sure hand. If nothing else, Pollack always knows how to keep things interesting: a revelation about Silvia’s past here, a wry line from Keller’s partner (the always-watchable Catherine Keener) there. This unmemorable conspiracy-theory film has been gussied up real pretty-like with prestigious actors and intelligent dialogue, and darn if it doesn’t make a world of difference.

B- (2 hrs., 8 min.; PG-13, a little mild profanity, brief strong violence.)