Sometimes movies just defy understanding. Think of a celebrated chef who assembles the finest ingredients available and then cooks up something inedible. That's what director Norman Jewison has done with The Statement, a picture that commanded Oscar speculation before it opened but eventually managed only the tatters of a national release. Jewison put together an outstanding cast to make a film about a serious subject. Something significant seemed imminent. But the finished product is an astonishing mess.
Adapted by Ronald Harwood from Brian Moore's novel (which was based on true events), The Statement endeavors to publicize an appalling scandal. The collaborationist Vichy government that held official power in France during World War II participated in the murders of 77,000 French Jews. Vichy police arrested Jews who were sent to Nazi death camps. Sometimes, the Vichy authorities used their own weapons on their Jewish countrymen. This film is the story of one such individual, Pierre Brossard (Michael Caine), a young Vichy officer who orders his troops to machine-gun seven Jews and then personally shoots all seven bodies in the head to assure their deaths.
After the war, the film tells us, many of the Vichy collaborationists were arrested, incarcerated and even executed. But others managed to escape justice. Brossard is such a man. He has powerful friends among other escaped collaborationists in government and in the Catholic church. Now, in 1992, however, the French have indicted Brossard for crimes against humanity, and he's on the lam, holed up in a series of monasteries where he's provided protection by right-wing clerics. The French government has charged Judge Anne-Marie Livi (Tilda Swinton) and an army colonel named Roux (Jeremy Northam) with capturing Brossard and putting him on trial. Meanwhile, someone else is trying to murder Brossard. A series of assassins are sent after him. The film's narrative drive comes from the question of whether legal authorities can capture Brossard before he's killed.
The Statement structures itself like a conventional thriller. The twist is that the central figure isn't a hero but a villain. That's interesting in concept, but in execution the stakes in the film are way low. We have very little invested in what happens to Brossard, although Caine can be credited with doing his best to make his character complicated enough to care about.
But he can't take us where the script won't let him. Perhaps at some subconscious level Jewison understood that his grip on his audience was weak. And maybe that's why he tries to jog our interest in the assassins. Livi and Roux, who seem to know more about the assassins' plans than makes a lick of sense, at first think they are hired by Jews, either a radical organization committed to avenging the atrocities of the Holocaust or perhaps relatives of the specific individuals Brossard killed. But Jewison can't sustain our curiosity about this too long, and when we learn the assassins' real identities we almost break our jaws yawning.
With the pedophile priest scandal in America still fresh in our minds, viewers won't find it hard to believe that the church has committed and concealed other sins as well. But "the church" is an abstraction that the film properly acknowledges is hardly monolithic. To get our juices of indignation really flowing, we need to see the misguided self-righteousness and open villainy of specific clerics. The robed figures we encounter are gray, soft-spoken and interchangeable. We're never sure which of them we are to understand as merely misguided and which as truly evil.
Fine actors give studied performances that don't seem to belong together. The late Alan Bates shows up as a high-level French official who tries to warn Livi off the case. But we haven't a clue why, and in the end we can't tell if he's supposed to be a good guy or a bad guy. Charlotte Rampling appears in a short segment as Brossard's wife, though their characters seem to have absolutely nothing in common, and she seems to have hated Brossard from before she married him. To get her to provide him food and shelter, he threatens to kill her dog, which we take to be the focus of her life. Why then, when he wakes up in the middle of the night from a terrifying dream, does she pull his head to her breast and comfort him the way the loving wife she most certainly isn't might?
And so it goes. The Statement is the kind of movie that advances on the backs of contrivances. Brossard can always spot the assassin at first glance. Thus he's always able to slip out the back or open fire first. On two occasions Roux's men surround monasteries where he's hiding and he's nonetheless able to escape, the second time even more preposterously than the first. As a result, Jewison has done something contradictory to his presumed intentions. He's made something true seem to be a clumsy fiction.
- Pierre Brossard (Michael Caine) seeks comfort (and safety) in his ex-wife (Charlotte Rampling) in Norman Jewison's The Statement.