Michael Caine is in the midst of a career Renaissance, giving some of his all-time best performances in the last few years ("Little Voice," "Quills," "The Quiet American"). But while he continues this streak in "The Statement," the movie doesn't rise to his level.
A dramatic thriller that follows prosecutors and assassins hot on the trail of an aging Vichy war criminal played by Caine, it's a film with scads of potential for tension and chills that seems to go wrong in dozens of little ways from the casting to the camera work to the conclusion.
While historical films set in other countries usually work when characters speak English, the entirely British cast of this comparatively modern-day film (set in 1992) seems out of place in its story of a French prosecutor (Tilda Swinton) and a French army colonel (Jeremy Northam) hunting a French World War II officer who is wanted for crimes against humanity. And it doesn't help that, despite being played by talented actors, the pursuers are dry, uninteresting characters with a single distinguishing personality trait between them -- Swinton's tendency to come off like a little dog snapping at the heels of those conspiring to hide her quarry.
Adapted by Oscar-winner Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist") from a novel by Brian Moore, the script contributes to the frustrating viewing experience with wooden, badly expository dialogue and some unlikely contrivances. When the prosecutor grills her own corrupt politician uncle (Alan Bates), who may be hiding past Vichy connections himself, he dodges direct questions by clumsily launching into a story about her childhood. At another point we're told the group trying to kill Caine sends communiques by radio, allowing the cops to intercept all their missives. Have these people never heard of the telephone?
Technically the film leaves a lot to be desired as well. Director Norman Jewison hired his relatively inexperienced son as cinematographer, and the camera angles are even more stale than the discourse. In one point-and-shoot scene, the camera hovers in the empty air above a desk so that during a heated exchange across said desk one person, then the other, can dramatically stand up into the frame to emphatically make a point.
"The Statement" comes alive only when Caine is on the screen in his strikingly tense and agitated turn as Pierre Brossard, the weary, gray war criminal who is running from fresh charges filed under a newly-minted human rights law -- some 50 years after deeply-entrenched connections in the Catholic Church and the post-war government secured him a pardon for his key role in the execution of seven Jews during the Nazi occupation of France.
Blindly religious yet pitiless, as a 19-year old officer during the war, Brossard told himself he was helping save France from the "Godless Communists" (who had their fingers in the French resistance) by allying himself with the Nazi puppet government. But even now he's not interested in redemption or remorse -- he's just fervently, recklessly desperate for lip-service absolution from any of the priests in a backward-thinking underground network that has helped him stay out of sight for decades. (The filmmakers give no such quarter to the church itself, implying complacency and continued cover-up.)
Caine lends this deservedly unnerved wreck of a man some surprising complexity and sympathy that clings to him even after he intimidates his ex-wife (the wonderful Charlotte Rampling) into concealing him and -- on two separate occasions -- pulls himself together long enough to get a calm, lethal drop on two inexperienced hit men sent to kill him.
But the tension of such moments -- and the emerging facts of the conspiracy they imply -- quickly dissipates in the stagnancy of the scenes involving the normally multifaceted Swinton ("The Deep End," "Adaptation") and Northam ("The Winslow Boy," "Enigma"), who are wasted in under-written roles that give them nothing to chew on. Stuck in predictable episodes like the one in which Northam throws paperwork across a room in frustration, then immediately has an on-cue epiphany that revitalizes their investigation, one can hardly blame these actors if they don't rise above the material.
Somewhere under the stilted surface of "The Statement" (the title comes from a declaration the would-be assassins intended to leave on Brossard's body), there is a savvy, intelligent, anxiety-packed political thriller struggling to get out -- the hope of which must have been the draw for the film's cast (which also includes John Neville and Ciaran Hinds). But director Jewison and writer Harwood barely scratch that surface, and that's a shame.
I haven't read Moore's book on which "The Statement" is based, but now I want to because there's a good story to be had here and I'm willing to bet the novel has in spades all the apprehension and stimulation this movie version is lacking.
Run time: 120 mins
In Theaters: Friday 27th February 2004
Box Office USA: $0.5M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Production compaines: Company Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 24%
Fresh: 25 Rotten: 81
IMDB: 6.2 / 10
Director: Norman Jewison
Starring: Michael Caine as Pierre Brossard, Tilda Swinton as Annemarie Livi, Jeremy Northam as Colonel Roux, Alan Bates as Armand Bertier, Charlotte Rampling as Nicole, John Neville as Old Man, Ciarán Hinds as Pochon, Frank Finlay as Commissaire Vionnet, William Hutt as Le Moyne, Matt Craven as David Manenbaum, Noam Jenkins as Michael Levy
Also starring: Ciaran Hinds
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