'The Interpreter" is the kind of big-star, big-theme picture Hollywood often holds back for the Academy Award season. Releasing it as early as April indicates Universal's confidence that its merits are solid enough for Oscar voters to remember them a few months from now, and that its blend of mystery, suspense, and action may pull in enough moviegoers to make it an early summer smash.
They may be right on both counts. "The Interpreter" is a swiftly told, smartly acted yarn, and it even has an idea or two on its mind.
Taking a break from the less conventional movies she tends to favor, Nicole Kidman plays Silvia, the title character. She's a United Nations interpreter who grew up amid such unstable surroundings that she took the job to serve the cause of problem-solving diplomacy and discussion.
The more we learn, though, the more complicated her story becomes. Her brother is an activist, her parents were killed by a tyrant's land mine, and she may not be the politically neutral pacifist she appears.
So we have to do our own interpreting when Silvia springs a surprise on her employers, claiming she overheard a death threat against the very dictator who destroyed her family - and who's due to give a UN speech, defending himself against brutality charges. Is she telling the truth? Or not?
Enter a Secret Service agent (Sean Penn) assigned to ward off the assassination in the UN building. He has as much trouble "reading" his informant as everyone else does - including us - and he's also distracted by his wife's untimely death just weeks earlier.
"The Interpreter" would have more current-events clout if it dealt with specific issues in a real African country, rather than generic troubles in an imaginary nation. That said, the movie takes what amounts to a daring position in today's ideological climate, endorsing institutions like the UN as valuable tools for bringing order to our chronically unruly world. All of which makes "The Interpreter" engrossing to watch and stimulating to think about.
• Rated PG-13; contains violence.