You'd have to be Roberto Benigni to screw up a World War II story as juicy as The Statement, which is about a Vichy-era thug on the run in early-'90s France. Director Norman Jewison and his screenwriter, Ronald Harwood, are a middlebrow marriage made in heaven (or hell, if your brow rises higher), and though they haven't exactly screwed up the late Brian Moore's excellent 1996 novel, they've certainly dumbed it down from a sophisticated meditation on the murky alliances between church and state that underlay French collaboration with the persecution of Jews under Nazi occupation, and persist in hypocrisy and anti-Semitism today.
What remains of The Statement is a tolerable thriller. Michael Caine, suitably old and tired in a windbreaker, glasses and a fawning whine, plays Pierre Brossard, a former Vichy flak—and a composite of real-life collaborators—responsible (in black-and-white flashbacks complete with bad weather) for the summary execution of seven Jews and the betrayal of many others. Brossard has survived under the wing of former Vichy colleagues and right-wing factions within the Catholic Church. A new law allows the French government to charge him with crimes against humanity, and we find him on the run from one scenic rural abbey to the next, pursued not only by the police at the behest of an implacable investigating judge (Tilda Swinton) and the army colonel (Jeremy Northam) she's recruited to help her, but also by mysterious killers who may have ties to a Jewish vigilante group, or to the Church itself.
This classy cast, garnished with minor roles from the major likes of Alan Bates, Ciaran Hinds and Frank Finlay, surely deserves better by way of character development, and almost all seem to compensate with wild overacting. As written by Harwood (who wrote the leaden screenplay for The Pianist, that movie's only serious flaw), Caine's Brossard is pared down to a single, all too glaring contradiction: he's a practiced killer who pumps extra bullets into his victims once they're dead; and a superficially devout Catholic who turns to his God only when it's time to snivel for absolution.
Swinton and Northam make a decorative pair, but their dialogue seems culled from one of those World War II movies where, as Swinton merrily observes in the production notes, "Everybody is French but speaks with an English accent and wears a raincoat. That's a very Norman Jewison film." Indeed it is, and not, in this instance, for the best.
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The Statement was directed by Norman Jewison; written by Ronald Harwood and Brian Moore, based on Moore's novel; produced by Jewison and Robert Lantos; and stars Michael Caine, Tilda Swinton and Jeremy Northam. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.