Norman Jewison's "The Statement" is a political thriller with a profound subject: the long and evil aftermath of WWII fascism. But moving as it is, and as superior as it is to the usual run of studio movies, it's still missing something - perhaps some of the glossy excitement you might expect.
Despite the brilliant cast (which also includes Tilda Swinton, Jeremy Northam, Charlotte Rampling and the late Alan Bates), only two of the characters, one with but a single scene, create truly compelling portraits. One of them is Caine as Pierre Brossard, a onetime French fascist policeman (of the dreaded "Milice," or militia) who is now, in old age, a devout Catholic hidden by overly generous churchmen. He's a killer breaking into cold sweats as he contemplates death or examines his conscience, begging for absolution each time he kills one of his modern pursuers. Rampling gives the other top performance as his acid-tongued ex-wife, Nicole.
If you compare it to a crisp modern nail-biter like "Bourne Identity," "The Statement" seems at first languorous, preoccupied with issues and character instead of shocks and suspense. Yet, in the end, the film raises such important issues - guilt, conscience, the memory of the Holocaust - that, along with Jewison's skill and Caine's power, they carry the movie. A black-and-white WWII flashback first reveals Brossard's crime: the 1944 roundup and execution of seven Jews in his village. Leaping ahead almost a half-century to 1992, we see one of the mysterious modern assassins, David Manenbaum (Matt Craven), find the old man at his provincial hideaway, set up an ambush and fall into one himself when the wily, preternaturally alert Brossard spots him.
From then on, crises pile up. Two resolute members of the current French government - dedicated magistrate Annemarie Livi (Swinton) and sturdy Colonel Roux (Northam) - keep dogging Brossard, while the old man is harbored by church friends (including an eloquent apologist prelate played by Malcolm Sinclair) and pursued by the assassins, who may be a covert Jewish hit squad carrying a "statement" of Brossard's crimes to be pinned to his corpse.
Also participating (sometimes by trying to intimidate Livi) are a group of high French officials or ex-officials (Bates, Frank Finlay, John Neville and Ciaran Hinds), some former comrades of Brossard, aiding him primarily to keep their own secrets safe.
The movie, based on the real-life Paul Touvier case (which didn't involve chases or modern killings), keeps growing on you, mostly because of the resonance of its themes and the powerful acting by Caine.
Caine is always marvelous with these sweaty, glib, beleaguered characters. He creates the stink of desperation better than almost any actor living, and he's magnetic here in a film that seems almost too low-pressure to accommodate him. So is that ageless beauty Rampling, brilliant as Nicole, the ex-wife who doesn't buy his mask of piety.
If the Brossard-Nicole relationship had dominated more of the movie, it might have been a powerhouse. But Swinton's Livi and Northam's Roux head toward a rote romance and, almost by default, our sympathies drift toward Brossard, despite his heinous past and the clever ways Caine keeps revealing his moral flaws, because he's one old man surrounded by murderous pursuers.
Part of that sympathy, though, comes from writer Harwood's evenhandedness. In "The Pianist," one of the most overwhelming indictments on the Holocaust, Harwood wrote his most emotional scene for pianist Szpilman and the sympathetic German officer. In "Taking Sides," Harwood and director Istvan Szabo quietly defended conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, damned by others as a collaborator.
Here, Brossard, whom we first see callously rounding up and killing innocent people, becomes disturbingly human - which, if anything, makes the killing worse. His church friends may absolve him, but it's harder for us to absolve the church here, which is too ready to mete out justice and mercy to Brossard while forgetting his victims. "The Statement" is an older man's film, and compassion is one of its strengths; Jewison and Caine make us feel pity and terror for the victims as well.
Directed by Norman Jewison; written by Ronald Harwood, based on the novel by Brian Moore; photographed by Kevin Jewison; edited by Stephen Rivkin, Andrew S. Eisen; production designed by Jean Rabasse; music by Normand Corbeil; produced by Robert Lantos, Norman Jewison. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday, Jan. 16. Running time: 2:00. MPAA rating: R (violence).
Pierre Brossard - Michael Caine
Magistrate Annemarie Livi - Tilda Swinton
Col. Roux - Jeremy Northam
Armand Bertier - Alan Bates
Nicole - Charlotte Rampling
Old Man - John Neville
Pochon - Ciaran Hinds
Commissaire Vionnet - Frank Finlay