Caine makes strong ‘Statement’

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Pierre Brossard hardly seems like an accessory to genocide. He huffs and puffs going up stairs and perpetually pops medication to soothe his ailing heart.

Back in the day, France circa 1944, Brossard sent Jews to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps. And he’s never paid for his crimes.

The hunt for the elusive Vichy satrap, and the duplicitous Catholic priests who did his bidding propel “The Statement,” a slick but stagnant new film from Norman Jewison (“The Hurricane”).

The director leverages real history to give “Statement” considerable heft, but only a sterling performance by Michael Caine lifts this leaden mystery.

The film, an adaptation of a fact-inspired Brian Moore novel, is by no means a traditional thriller. Still, it trots out a few suspense film conventions, such as an early car chase which establishes Brossard as a cunning target.

The film opens with a black and white flashback of Brossard’s most notorious atrocities. Captured in lush shades of gray — all the better to dramatize the horrors — the scene evokes the worst of the Vichy regime, which goose-stepped all too eagerly for its German superiors.

Brossard, we learn, escaped from custody shortly after the war’s end and has been evading authorities ever since.

The year is 1992, and Brossard’s life in France is relatively normal until his dusty case is updated with a new charge: crimes against humanity. Tilda Swinton is Anne, a no-nonsense judge who tries to track him down with the help of Colonel Roux (Jeremy Northam).

Meanwhile, a radical Jewish group is taking the law into its own hands, sending one assassin after another to correct history’s mistake.

Mr. Caine turns Brossard’s pathetic dash from justice into a carefully modulated sprint, brimming with pity and bankrupt faith. He’s a man who kisses his St. Christopher medal for good luck one moment, then threatens his estranged wife’s dog the next.

The Catholic Church is depicted, without adequate explanation, as complicit in Brossard’s flight from justice.

Roux and Anne’s oh-so-methodical detective work bears an uncanny resemblance to an “X-Files” episode, down to the actors’ striking physical similarities to that show’s stars (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson). The similarities don’t end there. The two share a slow-burn chemistry, but at the rate it develops in “The Statement” it could take a half dozen sequels before it ignites.

Among the film’s other faults is its neglect of its terrific supporting cast, including the late Alan Bates, John Neville and Charlotte Rampling. The latter’s turn as Brossard’s estranged wife seems to be parachuted in from a dysfunctional family treatise.

Entering his 70s, Mr. Caine has resumed the frantic work pace he established two decades ago. Making Brossard’s fractured humanity as convincing as Ronald Harwood’s jagged screenplay permits, the actor is the best reason to stay with “The Statement.”

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