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The Statement

(2003) ** R
118 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Norman Jewison. Cast: Michael Caine, Tilda Swinton, Jeremy Northam, Charlotte Rampling, Noam Jenkins.

Norman Jewison's The Statement, adapted by Ronald Harwood from the Brian Moore novel, unfolds a taut opening sequence, then slowly slackens into a repetitive torpor. Early buzz pegged The Statement as a likely Oscar contender. Jewison's a recipient of the Academy's Thalberg award (and five-time competitive nominee); Harwood got an Oscar nomination for adapting his acclaimed play The Dresser, then won last year for The Pianist; star Michael Caine is a four-time nominee and two-time winner. But ifs and buts aren't candy and nuts: The Statement's intriguing premise—about the Catholic Church's harboring of Nazi war criminals—fails to satisfy as either a trashy thriller or a compelling drama.

Caine plays Pierre Brossard, a one-time policeman who—under the Vichy government in 1944 France—killed seven Jews to curry favor with the Nazis and his collaborator superiors. After a black-and-white rendition of the crime, Jewison flashes forward to 1992, where Brossard continues to elude those who wish to flush him out, including a radical group planning to assassinate him and a faction of the French justice department led by driven judge Anne Marie Livi (Tilda Swinton of The Deep End). Livi partners up with army Colonel Roux (Jeremy Northam), and the two track Brossard by interrogating government officials (like Alan Bates's Minister Bertier) and Chuch officials (like William Hutt's equivocating Cardinal). The investigators rapidly discover that a shadow group within the Chuch—the Chevalier du Ste. Marie—is responsible for Brossard's exceptional elusiveness.

The ruthless, emotionally vulnerable Brossard (loosely inspired by real war criminal Paul Touvier) keeps one step ahead, of course, or there'd be no movie. Michael Caine helps to mitigate the annoyances of the multiple climaxes with his not entirely convincing, but never boring change-up performance. His shoulders turned inward, the sweaty, short-of-breath Brossard repeats a mantra throughout the picture: "All I want is absolution. I want to die in a state of grace. I am truly repentant." When circumstances (by his standards) require, Brossard is not above murder or, in the film's silliest moment, threatening to kill the dog of his estranged wife (Charlotte Rampling) to assure his temporary asylum in her bed.

Jewison lets Harwood's clumsy conspiracy-thriller twists and surprisingly stodgy dialogue spell everything out. In one nicely handled scene, Swinton rankles as she interviews a police detective for information that might turn on Brossard. I thought, "That scene did a nice job of showing her impatience." Moments later, Livi tells Roux, "It's a problem I have. I'm too impatient." Oh. Then Brossard begs God for absolution again, and on it goes. John Neville, for whom the sinister old man has become a stock-in-trade, plays the sinister old man behind the conspiracy, and the late Bates's couple of scenes are unfortunately hackneyed.

The gambit of multiple points of view fragments the story—we fail to either fully understand the war inside Brossard or plumb the depths of the labyrinthine conspiracy. Jewison tells the story in fair visual terms, making especially good use of locations, and Normand Corbeil makes a valiant effort with old-fashioned orchestrations that compensate for the film's inability to crackle. But the oddly Anglocentric cast representing a Gallic story emblematizes the film's ultimate lack of credibility. The Statementis a downhill coast which never shifts into gear.

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