It’s been a long time since there was a literary thriller, and the last one I can recall, The Ghost Writer, was a bit self-important, so the recently released French movie The Translators, by Régis Roinsard, is very welcome.
While it may not be especially plausible, it is a twist-filled mystery about a group of translators tasked with rendering the final volume of a best-selling French trilogy into their native languages, and it’s delicious fun.
Reportedly, the movie is based on the experiences of the translators who worked on Inferno, the fourth book in Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, who were put on a so-called “literary lockdown” in a Milanese mansion so that the manuscript would not be leaked before publication.
In The Translators, the characters are housed in a kind of luxury bunker underneath a chateau in the midst of bucolic scenery in the French countryside, equipped with everything a weary translator might wish for at the end of the day: great food and wine, a library of classic movies, a swimming pool and even a bowling alley. The mansion, we are told, was put together by a billionaire so he could disappear there and survive any catastrophe in the outside world – call it survivalist real-estate porn.
The translators are brought together by a Eric Angstrom (Lambert Wilson, who is in the Matrix movies and has been in many French films, such as Bicycling with Moliere), the shrewd CEO of a publishing company – whose name may or may not be a reference to the Rabbit Angstrom novels by John Updike – in order to translate the final book in the Dedalus trilogy by a reclusive author, whose identity is known only to Angstrom. It turns out he is an elderly bookstore owner who prefers to live under the radar – but then again, he may not be.
This is one of those movies where everything you think you know is called into question. Angstrom wants to release versions of the book in all the best-selling markets around the world on the same day, so stopping the book from being leaked and pirated is of paramount importance.
The translators he brings together are a mixed bunch, slightly stereotyped but certainly entertaining. Katerina, the Russian translator, is played by glamorous former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, who also appeared in the Israeli movie The Assassin Next Door, opposite Ninet Tayeb; Alex (Alex Lawther), the English translator, is a scruffy slacker; Dario (Riccardo Scarmarcio, who appears in the upcoming Nanni Moretti film, Three Floors, and was in the Netflix movie L’ultimo paradiso), the Italian translator, oozes charm and self-confidence; the Danish translator, Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen of Borgen), is a harried mother who is depressed about not fulfilling her own literary ambitions; Javier (Edouardo Noriega), from Spain, fights a stutter; Telma (Maria Leite), the Portuguese translator, is a kind of punk princess; Konstantinos (Manolis Mavromatakis), a left-wing Greek, has a cynical phrase for every occasion; Chen (Frederic Chau) is a Chinese-born Parisian who is comfortable with their luxe accommodations; and German Ingrid (Anna-Maria Sturm), who is a stickler for rules.
And there are many rules to obey. They are not allowed any Internet access or cellphones, and all research must be done the old-fashioned way, from books in a library.
As the plot thickens, the story becomes a mixture of psychological thriller and soapy drama that will keep you on your toes, and there are few turns that even the most alert viewer will not be able to guess, but that’s the fun of it.
The translators also bandy about literary references, from Joyce to Proust to Agatha Christie. And just when you are getting to know the characters, pages are leaked to the Internet, and Angstrom turns into a brutal overlord as he tries to discover the culprit.
Translators don’t tend to have the world’s most exciting working conditions, so the premise of this film will be appealing to anyone with even the most casual connection to the profession. And The Translators will be diverting for anyone who enjoys literary allusions and a whodunit, as well as for those of us who live our daily lives in more than one language.