Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”
Though its emotions never come all the way into focus – Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn seem to internalize their characters' grief until there's little none left to see – this thriller is every bit the masterful production guaranteed by its pedigree and promotion. Having two recent Oscar winners in the lead roles can help: Penn does a chivalrous, urbane variation on his usual weary tough-guy, while Kidman convincingly suggests that her character could be either a genuine victim surrounded by conspiracy or the liar at the heart of it, a traditional noir role made unusually savvy and convincing by one of the best actresses currently working.
The efforts of the actors are lent invaluable aid by the real United Nations building, which gives the film such a sensation of realism that we forget the characters are archetypes and come to care, even deeply, about the outcome of their tale. For me, by the time Kidman faced a critical choice in the third act, the feelings and motivations on both sides of the issue were so clear that I felt myself just as torn as she, and I realized the film had succeeded in creating a true three-dimensional moral dilemma. It would have been nice if the African nation in the film had been a real one to match the real UN building (what a letdown when the narration mournfully reads off the names of "slaughtered innocents" and we can only think they're not real people), but the politics are not truly central anyway: This is not a film about grief, it's a film about what grief can do to the people who bear it. That such a useful post-9/11 subject comes in the form of a captivating and expertly-made thriller is icing on the cake.