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THE INTERPRETER – James Newton Howard

theinterpreterOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

The international profile of James Newton Howard has arguably never been greater, following his various successes in recent years – The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and the Oscar-nominated The Village amongst them. He is now at a stage in his career where he can pick and choose projects from the most high-profile movie-makers in Hollywood: such is the case with The Interpreter, the latest political thriller from director Sydney Pollack, who in the past has helmed such classic films as Three Days of the Condor and The Firm.

Nicole Kidman stars as Silvia Broome, an interpreter with the United Nations, who fled her homeland – the fictional African country of Matobo – to escape the totalitarian regime of President Edmond Zuwanie (Earl Cameron). A white woman with an English mother and an African father, Silvia blames Zuwanie for the death of her parents, and sees her diplomatic work at the UN as a way of coming to terms with her loss, and to put things right. However, when Silvia inadvertently overhears a conversation between two men who are plotting to assassinate Zuwanie during a visit to the UN headquarters in New York, things change for the worse. Assigned to investigate her story are secret service agents Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) and Dot Woods (Catherine Keener). Tobin, whose wife was recently killed in a car accident, disbelieves Silvia’s tale, especially when during the investigation he delves into her background and discovers a decidedly dubious personal history. Before long, and despite their shared attraction for each other, Silvia and Tobin find themselves mired in a labyrinthine plot of international politics, assassins and mercenaries, dictators and would-be coups, all of which places both of them in real danger.

Sydney Pollack really should make more movies (his last one before this was the 1999 Harrison Ford vehicle Random Hearts). The Interpreter is one of the most cleverly-constructed and intelligently-written political thrillers in recent years, boasting two mesmerizing central performances by Kidman and Penn, and some poignantly up-to-date commentary on the current political status in Africa (it can be no coincidence that the circumstances surrounding Zuwanie mirror those of the real-life president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, or that Matobo is actually the name of a national park in the south of that country).

However, despite the excellence of the film it accompanies, James Newton Howard’s score is slightly disappointing and, despite having a few standout moments, generally fails to ignite the musical fires of political turmoil in the way Pollack, Kidman and Penn do. Howard’s modern thriller scores, on the whole, tend to be rather understated affairs, relying more on percussion and orchestral ambiences than real themes and motifs – think of his scores for A Perfect Murder, Primal Fear, or even Snow Falling on Cedars. For the most part, The Interpreter falls firmly into that camp.

The problem with The Interpreter is that it starts badly. The first cue, “Matobo”, is so quiet that, at times, you genuinely wonder whether the CD is actually playing or not. There are short percussion bursts, little hints of African vocals, brief string passages, and an admittedly quite appealing trumpet interlude, but for the majority of first 8 minutes the score effectively does nothing of interest, and it sets a disappointing precedent which could potentially tarnish the rest of the score. Other cues, such as “Silvia Is Followed”, “Silvia’s Background” and “Simon’s Journals” simply meander along in the lowest reaches of the orchestra, barely raising interest levels. The best and least derogatory description of these cues is ‘appropriately atmospheric’.

However, this negativity is somewhat misleading, as the score does have its high points. As befits the African flavor of the film, much of Newton Howard’s music features a great deal of tribal percussion and “ethnic” vocal work, adding texture and a geographical anchor point to the otherwise subdued Hollywood Studio Symphony Orchestra. A traditional African hymn, “Atolago”, weaves its way in and out of cues such as “Drowning Man Trail”, while the action cues – notably “Guy Forgot His Lunch” and “Silvia Showers” – raise the tempo significantly, and contain a great deal of building tension with rattling percussion and cacophonous brass bursts.

Both “Tobin Comes Home” and “The Phonecall” feature a bittersweet piano motif which illustrates the sense of grief and loss Sean Penn’s character feels for his dead wife, while “Philippe” introduces a mournful clarinet motif for the French photojournalist whose fate is lamented in the downbeat “Did He Leave a Note”, an unexpectedly tender duet which pits a lonely guitar against the sonorous woodwind. Arguably the best track on the album is the excellent, driving “Zuwanie Arrival at UN”, which accompanies the Matoban convoy as it weaves its way through the New York freeway system with dramatic rhythms, powerful brass phrases, a modern electronic undercurrent, and a real sense of style. All this before the “End Credits” swell into a pleasingly upbeat and stirring string restatement of the theme augmented by more of the evocative African vocals.

Perception is a funny thing in film music; listening to the score for The Interpreter after having seen the film, it makes for a much more rewarding experience than it did prior to seeing it. Knowing the context of a score such as this is hugely important when judging its effectiveness, and as a result it has probably ended up with a higher rating than it would have had I reviewed it two weeks ago. As an album, it has a more than number of obvious shortcomings, and I can fully appreciate how easy it would be to dismiss it as a pointless and boring score. However, as is often the case with these things, the devil is in the detail, and such is Newton Howard’s talent that he still manages to inject a few moments of dramatic intensity and rhythmic excellence into what is, essentially, an album of mainly themeless underscore. Fans of JNH will certainly find plenty to enjoy, but I can see it having limited appeal elsewhere.

Rating: **

Track Listing:

  • Matobo (8:24)
  • Silvia is Followed (1:22)
  • Tobin Comes Home (2:19)
  • Silvia’s Background (1:03)
  • Philippe (1:27)
  • Drowning Man Trail (Atolago) (1:44)
  • Guy Forgot his Lunch (3:02)
  • The Phonecall (1:08)
  • Simon’s Journals (3:05)
  • Silvia Showers (2:51)
  • Did He Leave a Note? (3:55)
  • Zuwanie Arrival at UN (6:01)
  • Assassin (4:14)
  • End Credits (Atolago) (4:13)

Running Time: 45 minutes 06 seconds

Varèse Sarabande VSD-6651 (2005)

Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by Jeff Atmajian, Brad Dechter, Pete Anthony and James Newton Howard. Special vocal performances by Kirsten Bråten Berg. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jim Weidman. Mastered by Patricia Sullivan-Fourstar. Album produced by James Newton Howard and Jim Weidman.

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