Material that might have made for an intriguing morality play is rendered as a by-the-numbers and fatally overlong pursuit thriller. Toplining a strong, but underutilized Michael Caine as a Vichy war criminal on the lam, lackluster pic fails both as suspense and as character study. Seems highly unlikely to garner critical support or awards.

Material that might have made for an intriguing morality play is rendered as a by-the-numbers and fatally overlong pursuit thriller in “The Statement.” Toplining a strong, but underutilized Michael Caine as a Vichy war criminal on the lam, lackluster pic fails both as suspense and as character study, and seems highly unlikely to garner the critical support or awards necessary to make this more than an arthouse curio. Clearly, hopes were riding higher on this Sony Pictures Classics release, which opens in New York and L.A. Dec. 12 and which is reportedly one of the most expensive movies ever produced with predominately Canadian financing.

Basing the film on Brian-Moore’s well-regarded 1997 novel, which was itself loosely inspired by the case of Nazi collaborator Paul Touvier, director Norman Jewison and screenwriter Ronald Harwood begin with a short sequence set in 1944, in which we see the round-up and subsequent execution of seven Jews from the French town of Dombey. The executioners are all officers of the Milice — the military force set up by the Vichy government to carry out the orders of the Nazi occupiers. And one of those Milice officers is Pierre Brossard (George Williams, playing the younger version of the Caine character).

Flash forward to Provence, 1992, where an aged, wearied Brossard (now Caine) is living incognito in a small abbey on the outskirts of town. Much like the real-life Touvier, Brossard was arrested after the war for his alleged crimes, escaping before he could be punished, and subsequently receiving a full pardon by the President of France. Now, a recently enacted law has made Brossard eligible for prosecution again, this time under the designation of crimes against humanity. He has been drawn back into a life of hiding, protected and financially supported by key figures in the Catholic Church who believe Brossard’s wartime actions were a case of “just following orders.”Trying to apprehend Brossard are a plucky Paris magistrate (Tilda Swinton) and the military colonel (Jeremy Northam) assigned to assist her. To accomplish that task, however, they’ll have to keep apace of the members of a shadowy, unidentified organization — possibly a militant Jewish group — who would like nothing more than to see Brossard’s head on a proverbial platter. (Pic’s title refers to a document carried by the members of that group, meant to be pinned on Brossard’s body immediately following his assassination, identifying him as a war criminal and his murder as an act of retribution.) But it’s also possible this is no Jewish group at all, but rather a conspiracy organized to prevent a captured Brossard from revealing other, well-hidden former Milice.

There are the makings here for a compelling picture about the lingering vestiges of French collaboration and the extraordinary turnabout that sees former hunters like Brossard become the hunted themselves. But, somewhat surprisingly — especially given Jewison’s penchant for making message pictures — “The Statement” largely ignores its inherent sociopolitical subtext, adhering instead to a rote investigative-procedural formula in which the only real concern is which of Brossard’s potential captors will reach him first.

Brossard himself ought to be the movie’s key point of interest, and more than just the prize in some latter-day scavenger hunt. However, as in “The Hurricane,” Jewison gets so caught up in his dull supporting characters (Swinton and Northam) that we’re never allowed to fully get under Brossard’s skin.

Helping matters little, Harwood’s script (a real comedown from “The Pianist”) feels like an extended “Law & Order” teleplay, cluttered with interminable scenes of Swinton and Northam discussing leads for their investigation and/or deposing sources. (Alan Bates and Frank Finlay are among the many fine thesps who flit through in such throwaway roles.) Worse, though, are a series of interminable anticlimaxes in which Brossard is nearly snatched, over and over again, only to not-so-craftily escape at the last moment.

To his credit, Caine creates as complex a character as he can given his actual screen time (and how much of it is consumed by running from place to place). Yet only in two wonderful scenes, featuring Charlotte Rampling as his estranged wife, does Brossard blossom into a thriving, fully formed presence. The rest of the time, we’re left wanting to know much more about this man who can seem by turns childlike in his panic, menacing in his indignation and, oddly, passionately repentant for sins he does not fully believe he has even committed.

Photographed by Jewison’s son on a variety of French locations, pic is competently but unimpressively lensed, with an overabundance of medium close-ups and a tendency toward overlighting. Other tech credits are about on par.

Though thesps are meant to be playing French characters, no efforts are made at local accents.

The Statement

Canada-U.K.-France

Production

A Sony Pictures Classics (in U.S.) release of a Sony Pictures Classics and Serendipity Point Films presentation of a Robert Lantos production of a Serendipity Point Films/Odessa Films/Company Pictures co-production in association with Astral Media, Telefilm Canada, Corus Entertainment, Movision, Sony Pictures Classics and BBC Films. Produced by Lantos, Norman Jewison. Executive producers, David M. Thompson, Mark Musselman, Jason Piette, Michael Cowan. Coproducers, Sandra Cunningham, Yannick Bernard, Robyn Slovo. Directed by Norman Jewison. Screenplay, Ronald Harwood, based on the novel by Brian Moore.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Kevin Jewison; editors, Stephen Rivkin, Andrew S. Eisen; music, Normand Corbeil; production designer, Jean Rabasse; set decorator, Francoise Benoit-Fresco; costume designer, Carine Sarfati; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital), Bruce Carwardine; supervising sound editors, Michael O'Farrell, John Laing; associate producer, Julia Rosenberg; assistant director, George Every; second unit director, Anthony Gaudioz; casting, Nina Gold. Reviewed at AFI Los Angeles Film Festival (Centerpiece Gala), Nov. 12, 2003. Running time: 119 MIN.

With

Pierre Brossard - Michael Caine Anne Marie Livi - Tilda Swinton Roux - Jeremy Northam Bertier - Alan Bates Nicole - Charlotte Rampling Old Man - John Neville Pochon - Ciaran Hinds Commissaire Vionnet - Frank Finlay Le Moyne - William Hutt David - Matt Craven Michael - Noam Jenkins Cholet - Peter Wight Cardinal of Lyon - Malcolm Sinclair Patrice - Colin Salmon Dom Andre - David De Keyser
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