On paper, "The Statement" sounds as if it couldn't help but be of interest. Its stars are Michael Caine, Tilda Swinton and Jeremy Northam. Its director is the veteran Norman Jewison. And its script, by "The Pianist's" Oscar-winning Ronald Harwood, is adapted from the much-admired novel by Brian Moore that is in turn based on one of the most intriguing incidents in modern French history.
That would be the case of Paul Touvier, a Vichy commander sometimes known as "the torturer of Lyons" who, following Nazi orders during World War II, selected seven Jews who were executed in June 1944 in the village of Dombey.
Despite this, Touvier was pardoned by President Georges Pompidou in 1971. And when French authorities decided to prosecute him decades later for crimes against humanity, he was aided and even hidden by conservative elements of the Catholic church who, in the words of Moore's novel, included "nakedly anti-Semitic members of the old French church" as well as those who "simply feared the Communists more than the Nazis."
Films, however, can't just sound good on paper; they have to be effective on the screen, and in that form, "The Statement" is disappointing.
Phlegmatically directed by Jewison from Harwood's lumbering dramaturgy, "The Statement" shows how little fine actors can do when they're prisoners of a tepid, unconvincing script and energy-less moviemaking.
Never working up anywhere near the tension or the interest it thinks it has, "The Statement" is pedestrian almost from beginning to end.
After a black-and-white prelude showing those murders in Dombey, "The Statement" picks up its 70-year-old protagonist, here called Pierre Brossard and played by Caine, in Provence in 1992.
He's being shadowed by an assassin whose assignment, in addition to murder, is to plant on the body the statement that gives the film it's title: "This man is Pierre Brossard. He has been executed for being a Nazi collaborator."
Brossard, however, proves predictably difficult to kill: If he were an easy mark, the film would end a lot sooner. More to the point, Brossard proves to be an extremely difficult person to get even minimally involved with.
Though Caine is an impeccable actor who rarely sets a foot wrong, he has not gotten his usual firm grasp on this slippery character. There's too much worry and hysteria in his twitchy Brossard, too much groveling neurosis as he goes from one church-sanctioned hiding place to another. Brossard isn't just unsympathetic here, he's not even interesting, an irritant more than a recognizable human being.
Not that Brossard doesn't have a lot to worry about. Besides the assassins who are after him, the French government is also on his trail, looking to capture him alive and have him stand trial for those crimes against humanity.
Regrettably, the two bastions of rectitude assigned to the case, Judge Annemarie Livi (Swinton) and the army's Col. Roux (Northam) are just as uninteresting as Brossard. Swinton's jurist is all impulsive impatience, with no time for pleasantries, and Northam's stolid colonel is there simply to be a counterweight to her fury. It's not a winning combination.
It would be nice to say that this flaccid script is an unexpected lapse for Harwood after his work on "The Pianist," but that is not the case. That film, its Oscar victory notwithstanding, was strongest in its largely silent second half, when Harwood's weakness for overly didactic dialogue couldn't do the damage it does here.
Jewison doesn't help matters. As the good guys try to figure out who the bad guys are and both sides try and figure out where Brossard is, we're left trying against all odds to minimally care about any of the above. The characters are not finely drawn enough to be involving, and without a firm directing hand nothing feels at stake. And having all these French people speak English, though it's a venerable movie convention, is certainly of no help. The only performer who escapes unscathed is the remarkable Charlotte Rampling, an actress who brings unexpected integrity to the role of Brossard's estranged wife, Nicole, and seems to have found a way to believe in her dialogue that has eluded everyone else.
How and why men who think themselves good end up doing evil is a subject that never loses its fascination, and it's a shame a way wasn't found to make it compelling here.
MPAA rating: R for violence.
Times guidelines: Disturbing adult themes.
Michael Caine ... Pierre Brossard
Tilda Swinton ... Annemarie Livi
Jeremy Northam ... Col. Roux
Alan Bates ... Armand Bertier
Charlotte Rampling ... Nicole
Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Norman Jewison. Producers Robert Lantos, Norman Jewison. Screenplay Ronald Harwood, based on the novel by Brian Moore. Cinematographer Kevin Jewison. Editors Steve E. Rivkin, Andrew S. Eisen. Costumes Carine Sarfati. Production design Jean Rabasse. Running time: 2 hours.
In limited release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times