Codes that have no meaning

‘The Interpreter’ transfers intrigue to a mythical African locale

Claire Joseph

The words “dead” and “gone” are not interchangeable.

In “The Interpreter,” Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), a South African U.N. employee, earns her living translating and differentiating words such as “gone” and “dead.”

When she goes to the United Nations late at night to retrieve some belongings, she overhears two men speaking on the main floor.

What she hears, in a language only a handful of other people understand, is a possible assassination plot against a controversial African head of state who is planning to speak at the United Nations.

It seems, though, that while she only heard the two men, they saw her, and she is now in danger.

Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), a recent widower, is assigned to protect the head of state and, accordingly, to interview and investigate Silvia.

Tobin finds that, coincidentally (or not), the African leader’s regime murdered Silvia’s parents and sister, making Silvia both a witness and suspect in the investigation of the assassination plot.

The film plays word games with its audience, underscoring the importance of the precise meanings and nuances of words.

This word play makes the film intelligent and fun.

The characters, through the story’s plot, are given depth and meaning.

Silvia, for example, is not only a U.N. translator but also a former machine-gun-carrying rebel, battling this same threatened head of state and his regime.

Tobin, back to work after losing his wife only two weeks earlier, struggles with staying within the confines of his job and keeping a professional relationship with Silvia or acting on his feelings to create a more personal relationship with her.

“The Interpreter” makes some progressive moves in how it depicts several African men. The Africans in the film are depicted realistically, as individuals with discrete political attitudes and disagreements.

The depths of these characters are realized slowly and at various parts of the film, creating ambiguity and the desire to second-guess your first, second or even third prediction of the story’s criminal (if any).

The film’s intentional ambiguity and smart plotting keep the audience speculating about the validity of the alleged assassination plan and Silvia’s possible involvement.

Up until the very end, the audience is left wondering whether the African head of state will wind up dead or merely gone.