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‘The Statement,’ thriller with a brain

Michael Caine stars in this story of a Nazi war criminal
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

In “The Statement,” as he famously did with “In the Heat of the Night,” director Norman Jewison uses the framework of an investigative thriller to examine vital political and moral issues.

But he is talking to a much smaller audience with this movie. For “The Statement” burrows into the tricky morass of wartime France, Nazi war crimes, the Catholic Church’s alleged complicity and protection still provided to war criminals by high government officials. While the moral issues at stake in each movie are not that dissimilar, the sad truth is that mainstream American audiences lack the curiosity or historical understanding to take an interest in a political thriller that delves into so “foreign” a topic.

The film certainly has the hallmarks of a top-notch Jewison production — splendid performances, especially from leads Michael Caine, Tilda Swinton and Jeremy Northam, a pulse-quickening pace and production values that establish story and character within a distinct environment. The film, which Sony Pictures Classics will release Dec. 12, will play well not only to adults eager to explore matters of conscience but to enjoy the tense twists and turns of a manhunt thriller.

Tense thriller
Ronald Harwood’s script is based on a novel by the late Catholic novelist Brian Moore that in turn is based loosely on facts behind a notorious real-life case in France. Things begin in the south of France in 1944 when a young French officer, acting under the Nazi command, orders the execution of seven Jews. Flash-forward to 1992 when Pierre Brossard (Caine), a frightened white-haired man with an unsteady gait and bum ticker outfoxes a hired assassin (Matt Craven) and kills him instead. Immediately, Brossard returns to an abbey where he is staying, packs his bags and flees.

Meanwhile, in Paris, hardheaded Judge Anne Marie Livi (Swinton) takes over an ongoing investigation into Brossard, the man who committed “crimes against humanity” back in 1944. She enlists the aid of even-tempered army Col. Roux (Northam) but makes clear that her real target is the powerful men who have protected Brossard so many years.

Shocked to learn from Roux that a subterranean group, presumably Jewish, seeks to assassinate the aging war criminal, Livi redoubles her efforts despite a warning from a high official and old family friend (Alan Bates) that powerful forces are aligned against her.

As various groups close in on Brossard, Livi makes the fateful decision to release a photo of him to the press, forcing her prey deeper underground as he runs out of hiding places. One momentary refuge is with an estranged wife (Charlotte Rampling), a sanctuary some may wish Jewison and Harwood had explored more intensely, but the thriller format doesn’t permit such a digression.

Questions of responsibility
The movie adroitly shifts the focus among the harried Brossard, his various pursuers and several protectors, including a commissaire-turned-wine grower (Frank Finley), a corrupt police official (Ciaran Hinds), a cardinal (William Hutt) who is Brossard’s confessor and defender and a secret group of extreme conservatives within the Church dedicated to covering up Church complicity with the Nazis.

The chase is riveting, but even more so is the film’s exploration into self-deception and self-righteousness. Jewison and Harwood’s spade turns up no new ground, but the tilling allows us to ponder questions that haunt us today — namely, where responsibility lies for such crimes and the role of individual conscience in collective evildoing.

Caine, ever the master of his character in voice and body, makes Brossard a fascinating antagonist, a perpetual seeker of atonement who is unwilling to acknowledge any real guilt. The film gives little insight into the personalities of Swinton’s judge or Northam’s colonel other than as professionals dedicated to their task. But this does makes one wonder why they care where so many others obviously did not.

Atmospheric cinematography by Jewison’s son, Kevin Jewison, makes good use of southern French locations. Steve E. Rivkin and Andrew Eisen’s editing neatly builds tension, while Normand Corbeil’s emphatic music, a throwback to a Hitchcock score, helps drive the narrative.