If Rian Johnson’s Knives Out has reignited your appetite for a whodunit, The Translators wants to be the next film to satiate that hunger.
The polished French thriller with an international cast sets up a seductive Agatha Christie-esque closed house mystery featuring nine suspects and a multimillion-dollar crime.
Directed by Regis Roinsard from a script by him, Daniel Presley and Romain Compingt, The Translators has all the ingredients for a satisfying puzzler, even if it piles on too many garnishes by the end.
Set in the world of publishing, nine people are hired to simultaneously translate the anticipated third instalment in the fictional best-selling Dedalus series, The Man Who Did Not Want to Die.
Among them, Alex Goodman (Alex Lawther) the young English prodigy, Katerina Anisinova (Olga Kurylenko) the Russian translator who recalls Dedalus’ doomed heroine Rebecca, and Helene Tuxen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) the Danish translator grateful for a break from her children.
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The group will translate the book under extraordinary conditions imposed by slimy publisher Eric Angstrom (Lambert Wilson).
They are seconded in an enormous French countryside chateau, but underground in a luxurious bunker with no access to any form of outside communication. For 11 hours a day, they will do their work, surrounded by reference books and armed guards.
The sparkling pool, private chef, bowling alley, well-appointed rooms and bonding over a Burt Bachrach song don’t disguise the fact they’re essentially prisoners.
Not long into the process, Angstrom is sent an email with a demand – pay up or the book will be leaked.
Angstrom sets out to find the culprit but he’s not a particularly sympathetic extortion victim so part of you hopes the perpetrator gets away with it. There’s no Poirot-esque grace or Marple-like curiosity to Angstrom. Just a lot of bluster and heavy handedness.
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The Translators draws on many of its genre predecessors and those fingerprints are all over the film. From that Christie template springs many other tropes of detective fiction with nods to Alfred Hitchcock and even The Usual Suspects.
Then there’s Kurylenko’s ephemeral Katerina who seems to almost float through the bunker in a wispy white dress, obsessed with Dedalus’ Rebecca, a literary character she seems to have an almost unnatural connection with, a spectre that haunts her.
It’s as if Daphne Du Maurier is coursing through her characterisation.
(Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca is about a young woman haunted by the legacy of her new husband’s dead wife – it was most prominently adapted by Hitchcock and there’s a Ben Wheatley adaptation due out on Netflix later this year.)
Most of the other characters, including Frederic Chau’s Chinese translator Chen, Anna Maria Sturm’s German translator Ingrid and Riccardo Scamarcio’s Italian translator Dario aren’t as fleshed out, but when the ensemble is that large, it’s usually the first place where whodunits start to sag.
The Translators changes lanes about two-thirds of the way through, picking up its pace as it zooms around outside the claustrophobic confines of the chateau. Here, the tone shifts into something more akin to a propulsive thriller.
While The Translators functions as a mystery, its attempts to go deeper on the nature of storytelling and ownership don’t land as well. It doesn’t make a persuasive enough case for the audience to really care about this book we can’t read (but sounds bonkers) beyond the mystery of the impossible heist.
It’s also trying to be too clever, weaving in more threads than necessary, losing its tautness as it goes on. When the denouement comes, it’s almost too convoluted.
The Translators is in cinemas from Thursday, September 17 (excluding Victoria)
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