The United Nations building is elegant, precise, chilly. Nicole Kidman is elegant, precise, chilly. The two of them star in “The Interpreter,” and it’s a tossup who’s the MVP.

Kidman is tersely intelligent as Silvia Broome, a U.N. interpreter who overhears plans to kill a vicious African dictator. The U.N. plays itself, and its modern elegance supplies more than the authority that comes from setting a movie where it actually takes place.

A graceful, calm oasis in the middle of Manhattan, the U.N.’s beauty makes the atrocities touched on in the movie even more horrifying, and, because it’s a place where thousands of Manhattanites work, it establishes a connection between big world events and the little, average people who get swept up in them.

One of those average people is Kidman, or maybe she’s not. “The Interpreter” sets Kidman up as one of those coolly mysterious Hitchcock blondes (like Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief” or Eva Marie Saint in “North by Northwest,” which was also partly set at the U.N.). Guarded and flinty, Silvia is up to something, and the question FBI agent Keller (Sean Penn) has to figure out is whether she’s up to no good.

“The Interpreter” is the sort of quiet, tense, the-world-is-not-a-safe-place thriller that almost never gets made in these days of explosion-based “thrills.” Director Sidney Pollack has already made “Three Days of the Condor,” one of the all-time classics of the genre. And he brings a similar wit and measured suspense to “Interpreter,” particularly in a tense and peculiar bus trip that, for reasons that make complete sense in the context of the story, involves virtually every character.

Even so, I’m not sure Pollack is suited to this material. “Interpreter” would benefit from a stronger sense of how all of the Kidman stuff is related to real-life African nightmares and maybe from a joke that isn’t the underused Catherine Keener (as Keller’s partner) making a snarky aside.

Pollack may be too subdued a director to pull off the film’s climax, which is neither credible nor satisfying.

I don’t know if this is the case, but it feels like an ending that was reshot after the movie was completed and doesn’t fit with everything else the movie has taught us.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked “The Interpreter,” but it’s one of those good movies you watch with a nagging awareness that the elements are in place for a great one.

As it is, its cool, distant quality made me think of a Norah Jones song (or, actually, every song Norah Jones has ever recorded) that is nice and all but makes you wonder: Does she really feel it?


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