The Interpreter

Catherine Keener Sydney Pollack Nicole Kidman
The Interpreter
Theatrical release poster
Directed bySydney Pollack
Produced byTim Bevan
Eric Fellner
Kevin Misher
Screenplay byCharles Randolph
Scott Frank
Steven Zaillian
Story byMartin Stellman
Brian Ward
David Rayfiel (uncredited)
StarringNicole Kidman
Sean Penn
Catherine Keener
Music byJames Newton Howard
CinematographyDarius Khondji
Edited byWilliam Steinkamp
Distributed byUnited International Pictures (United Kingdom/Germany)
Universal Pictures (United States)
Mars Distribution (France)
Release date
  • 8 April 2005 (2005-04-08) (Greece)
  • 15 April 2005 (2005-04-15) (United Kingdom)
  • 22 April 2005 (2005-04-22) (United States)
Running time
108 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
United States
Budget$80 million
Box office$162.9 million

The Interpreter is a 2005 political thriller film directed by Sydney Pollack, starring Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener, and Jesper Christensen. It is notable for being the first movie to have been shot inside the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.


The movie opens in a dusty African landscape: the Republic of Matobo (a name from the Matobo National Park in Matabeleland Zimbabwe), where rebel leader Ajene Xola (Curtiss Cook) is driving two men, Simon and Philippe, to the abandoned Centennial Stadium. They briefly discuss how President Edmond Zuwanie (Earl Cameron)'s regime has ruthlessly exterminated most of the population, and intimidated the survivors into silence. Upon their arrival at the stadium, they discover that the informants are schoolboys, who point Ajene and Simon in the direction of corpses left by Zuwanie's security apparatus, while Philippe stays in the car.

Shouting lures Ajene and Simon back to the field, where they are promptly executed by the boys, who are revealed to be willing accomplices of Zuwanie's secret police. Upon hearing the gunshots, Philippe clambers out of the car and hides, taking pictures of a car arriving carrying Matoban officials, and then escapes the vicinity.

Meanwhile, Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) is an interpreter for the United Nations in New York City. Born in the United States to a British mother and white African father, she spent most of her life in her father's homeland of Matobo (a stand-in for Zimbabwe), studied music in Johannesburg, linguistics at Sorbonne University, Paris, and various other European countries, and is a dual citizen of both Matobo and the United States (with the possibility of deriving British citizenship through her mother). Her diverse background leads to UN Security Chief Lee Wu (Clyde Kusatsu) wryly describing her as "being the UN".

The U.N. is considering indicting Zuwanie, to stand trial in the International Criminal Court. Initially a liberator, over the past 20 years he has become as corrupt and tyrannical as the government he overthrew, and is now responsible for ethnic cleansing and other atrocities within Matobo. Zuwanie is soon to visit the U.N. and put forward his own case to the General Assembly, in an attempt to avoid the indictment.

A security scare caused by a malfunctioning metal detector forces the evacuation of the U.N. building, and, as Silvia returns at night to reclaim some personal belongings, she overhears two men discussing an assassination plot in Ku (the Matoban lingua franca). Silvia runs from the building when those discussing the plot become aware of her presence. The next day, Silvia recognizes words in a meeting, where she is interpreting, from phrases she overheard the night before, and reports the incident to U.N. security; the plot's target appears to be Zuwanie himself.

They, in turn, call in the U.S. Secret Service, which assigns Dignitary Protection Division agents Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) and Dot Woods (Catherine Keener) to investigate, as well as protect Zuwanie when he arrives, as well as Zuwanie's personal head of security, Dutch mercenary Nils Lud (Jesper Christensen). Keller, whose estranged wife was accidentally killed just days earlier, learns that Silvia has, in the past, been involved in a Matoban guerrilla group, that her parents and sister were killed by land mines laid by Zuwanie's men, and that she has dated one of Zuwanie's political opponents. Although Keller is suspicious of Silvia's story, the two grow close, in part because of their shared grief, and Keller ends up protecting her from attacks on her person.

Philippe calls Silvia to meet and informs her of Xola's death, but, unable to bear her grief, lies and says he doesn't know what happened to Simon (her brother). Silvia attempts to obtain information by way of Kuman-Kuman, an exiled Matoban minister living in New York, only to almost be killed in a bus bombing perpetrated by Gabonese national Jean Gamba, Nils Lud's right-hand man, and part of the opening scene's coterie.

Philippe is later found dead in his hotel room, and Silvia finds out that her brother was killed along with Ajene Xola (as shown in the opening scene). She narrowly avoids an assassination attempt by Gamba (whom Keller kills) and leaves a voicemail on Keller's phone saying she's going back home. Keller takes this to mean she's returning to Matobo, and dispatches an agent to intercept her at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The purported assassin is discovered (and shot to death) while Zuwanie is in the middle of his address to the General Assembly, and security personnel rush Zuwanie to a safe room for his protection. Silvia, anticipating this, has been hiding in the safe room, and confronts Zuwanie and intends to kill him herself. Keller determines that the assassination plot is a false flag operation created by Zuwanie to gain credibility that his rivals are terrorists and to deter potential supporters of his removal. Keller realizes that returning home means going to UN, and rushes to the safe room, just in time to prevent Silvia from murdering Zuwanie. Zuwanie is indicted, and Silvia reconciles with Keller before leaving for Matobo.



The Interpreter was shot almost entirely in New York City. The opening sequence was shot in Mozambique with a support crew made up largely of South African nationals. The name Matobo is that of a national park, Matobo National Park (Matopos) in Matabeleland Zimbabwe.

Filming in U.N. buildings

Parts of The Interpreter were filmed inside the U.N. General Assembly and Security Council chambers. The producers approached the U.N. about filming there before, but their request was turned down. The production would have relocated to Toronto with a constructed set; however, this would have substantially increased costs, and so Sydney Pollack approached then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan directly, and personally negotiated permission to film inside the United Nations. Annan commented on The Interpreter that "the intention was really to do something dignified, something that is honest and reflects the work that this Organization does. And it is with that spirit that the producers and the directors approached their work, and I hope you will all agree they have done that."

Ambassadors at the U.N. had hoped to appear in the film, but actors were asked to play the roles of diplomats. Spain's U.N. Ambassador Inocencio Arias jokingly complained that his "opportunity to have a nomination for the Oscar next year went away because of some stupid regulation."[1]

Matobo and Ku

The country "Republic of Matobo" and its corresponding constructed language "Ku" were created for this film. The director of the Centre for African Language Learning in Covent Garden, London, England, Said el-Gheithy, was commissioned in January 2004 to create Ku. It is based on Bantu languages spoken in Eastern and Southern Africa, and is a cross between Swahili and Shona, with some unique elements.

In Ku, the film's tagline "The truth requires no translation" is "Angota ho ne njumata".


The Interpreter earned mixed reviews from critics. It holds a 57% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 195 reviews with an average rating of 6.01/10. The website's critics consensus reads: "A polished and intelligent thriller, though marred by plot implausibilities."[2]

Box office

The picture was No. 1 In its opening weekend. According to Box Office Mojo, The Interpreter had a domestic gross of $72,708,161 and an international tally of $90,236,762, bringing the picture's worldwide gross to $162,944,923 versus an $80 million budget, so the film was considered a box office success.


In 2005, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awarded Catherine Keener as Best Supporting Actress for her performances in several films, including The Interpreter.

See also


  1. ^ "Diplomats' movie hopes dashed". 30 April 2004 – via
  2. ^ "The Interpreter (2005)". Retrieved 16 June 2020 – via