Catholic guilt has taken on a whole new meaning in recent years. Turns out priests have been up to all sorts of nefarious stuff, both heartbreakingly real (the massive sexual abuse scandal) and gleefully fake (The Da Vinci Code, one of those books that sells zillions of copies because it appeals to the guiltiest traits in an unlimited number of very different people).
Norman Jewison wants in on the action. In The Statement, the veteran director’s latest attempt at a thriller with a social conscience, the church is a wide-ranging cabal, a network of determined agents working toward strange, misguided goals under the guise of tradition and divine right. In other words, it’s a church. But Jewison is on a mission here: Using actual events as a guide, he’s determined to expose the Vichy government officials who allowed French Jews to be killed during World War II. Trouble is, Jewison sees no shades of gray in his story, except in the black-and-white flashbacks that pop up as frequent annoyances. The Statement shows no sophistication in relating a story that’s all about moral ambivalence.
Pierre Brossard (Michael Caine) ordered the execution of seven Jews, and he’s been on the run ever since. Certain people in the church have sheltered him for decades, since they also conspired with the Germans back when communism was considered a far greater threat than the Nazis. But an assassin tries to kill Brossard in the opening scenes, and the old man suddenly has a whole lot more to worry about than the law: There’s a super-secret organization of Jews trying to take out war criminals.
At the same time, a judge (Tilda Swinton) and an army officer (Jeremy Northam) are deputized to track down Brossard, hoping to catch him before the other guys do. They follow the trail across France—and as they get closer, the movie paradoxically gets less suspenseful. There’s a gradual shrinking of expectations when we realize the grand schemes and vast conspiracies suggested in the setup consist of little more than a bunch of old men sitting in spare apartments or monasteries, waiting for the phone to ring so they can pass Brossard on to the next safe house.
Perhaps The Statement simply was miscast. First of all, the three main characters are all supposed to be French, but they’ve all got English accents. Did Jewison shoot his film with the sound off? It’s baffling, especially Caine’s performance as the first French Cockney.
Though Swinton and Northam are commanding screen presences, they’re about as warm as day-old bread from a WASP bakery. The film fairly begs for smaller, emotion-driven scenes among the passionate people involved, but neither the director nor the actors seem capable of performing them. There’s an overwhelming lack of passion in a film that’s all about deep convictions and shifting morality.
In his third Holocaust-related adaptation of recent years, screenwriter Ronald Harwood has turned Brian Moore’s well-reviewed novel into a trudging chase movie. It has the pace of a book, which is often fatal in film—particularly in thrillers. These momentous proceedings all seem so trivial: “What do you mean, you don’t know? Stop protecting him,” Swinton whines plaintively to yet another holy man after Brossard makes yet another escape.
Swinton and Northam get almost no exposition of their characters, leaving only Caine to play for our sympathies. Jewison wants to create a conflicted figure, a man capable of crying while praying one moment and shooting a Canadian assassin the next, but we never get a clear sense of Brossard’s character. He has survived decades as a fugitive, yet he seems weak-willed and pouty. Caine seems a perfect choice to capture the dubious determination of such a man, but it simply doesn’t add up.
Jewison’s film has a few saving graces. Swinton’s icy poise is a welcome addition to any picture, and the ending is impressively understated. Jewison hasn’t entirely lost his grasp, Woody Allen-style; he just got a little bit caught up in outrage here. Once he loses his religion, perhaps he’ll allow his audience a little bit closer to his characters.