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Political thriller starring Michael Caine as Pierre Brossard, a known World War 2 criminal who has never been brought to trial, and has until now been leading a peaceful, anonymous life sheltered by the Catholic church. Now, nearly fifty years after committing the atrocities he has tried so hard to forget, a new war crimes investigation has been launched and the police (and hit-men) are after him.
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It was made onsite, in France, and gives us lots of beautiful French Riviera scenery. In addition, someone connected with the film's art department has given us some ravishingly lovely art nouveau set dressing; all the bars look so beautiful you'd gladly live in them, and there's an old-fashioned glass elevator door that's just heart stopping. Another oddity of the film: despite the fact that it is set in France, and tells a story set in France, it was made with an entirely British cast, who do not attempt those funny "continental" accents; on one of the disk's extras, the director says he believes British actors can play continental particularly well, and he doesn't think those accents are really appropriate: the French speaking French in their own country don't speak with accents.
During World War II, Frenchman Pierre Brossard, who collaborated happily with his country's Nazi occupiers and the Vichy government they created, murdered 14 Jews. Many years later, in the early 1990's, it's his turn to be the prey again, as he was after war's end, when a new law punishing `crimes against humanity,' is passed. A Nazi hunter, the police and hired killers pick up his trail. The Oscar-winning Caine, the world's favorite cockney actor - some might think him an odd casting choice for this role--plays the protagonist Brossard. Caine, who took home Hollywood's favorite statuette for Hannah and Her Sisters , and Batman Begins / The Dark Knight , was, he says in the disk's extras, after a low period in his career, in the midst of a great career revival. Odd casting or not, he gives another brilliant performance, pretty much carrying the picture. His character is a many-faceted one- a pious, religious man, devout Catholic and cold-blooded Nazi war criminal. Caine downplays his considerable natural charm and humor, and gives us a vivid portrait of a conflicted, disturbed, frightening man: he remarks in the extras that though he has played rather few villains in his long, sterling career, he was able to play this one, as people seldom think themselves monsters. Whatever, he still has his characteristic cockney walk, and I still think him one of the greatest actors alive.
The much-admired Scottish actress Tilda Swinton( The Deep End ,The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader ) plays Annemarie Livi, French judge with a Jewish father. (French judges have many more powers than American or British, including the ability to investigate and follow cases.) Handsome Jeremy Northam () plays Colonel Roux, whom Livi taps to work with her on the case. Alan Bates (Oliver's Travels ,Women in Love ) plays Armand Bertier, high French official, who has a long standing friendship with the Livi family. The beautiful and mysterious actress Charlotte Rampling, who jump-started her career with Luchino Visconti's The Damned , and then The Night Porter , before moving to France to live with her French musician husband Maurice Jarre, and play in several successful French films, is wasted in the small part of Brossard's wife Nicole. Other well-known British players, including John Neville, Ciaran Hinds, Frank Finlay, Malcolm Sinclair, Edward Petherbridge, Colin Salmon and David de Keyser round out the cast in supporting roles. Thank goodness, the disk has subtitles, as all these well-bred Britishers never raise their voices.
The film was directed by the talented, Canadian-born Norman Jewison (FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, MOONSTRUCK, HEAT OF THE NIGHT). It was based on the novel of the same name, which was apparently based on a true story, by the Irish-Canadian novelist/screenwriter Brian Moore (THE LONELY PASSION OF JUDITH HEARNE, TORN CURTAIN, THE LUCK OF GINGER COFFEY). He was said to be the favorite young writer of the extraordinary Graham Greene, the Catholic convert novelist who explored his new religion until his death. And who else but an Irishman such as Moore would dare to show the Church in such an unflattering light? The South African born actor/screenwriter, Ronald Harwood, also an Oscar winner (THE PIANIST, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY), penned the script. Well, all this talent has put together a confusing, badly-organized motion picture. But it's worth seeing once, particularly if you are a Michael Caine fan, as am I.
The cast is stellar in choice with Tilda Swinton in an early major movie outing being most impressive but the key problems are in the casting for me. Michael Caine is a strange choice given the nature of the lead character being an immoral man now bereft many decades after events he was involved in. Caine delivers his usual professional performance but none of the nuances one feels are required (pity they did not cast Alan Bates in the role versus his minor part in the film). It is interesting in the "Making of" short included that Caine in his comments does not seem to fully understand his character's story.
The other issue is I suspect the script (I personally think the issue of French accents raised by some reviewers is a non-issue if the story is well done). Adapted from the novel by Brian Moore and screenplay by Ronald Harewood, it doesn't seem to know whether it is a chase/vendetta story (which does not follow the facts of the true story on which it is based) or a probe into the ambivalent feelings such events have had on French society and the Catholic Church since WW2.
Sadly another DVD for the Charity shop box.
Brian Moore's source novel could almost be a belated sequel to Lacombe, Lucien, with its French Nazi collaborator finding himself on the run from both the police and a group of assassins in the wake of the new Crimes Against Humanity laws, in the process relying on the help of those officials who slipped through the net after the war and those in the Catholic Church who approved of his anti-communist rationale for his actions. It's a fine part for the right actor - say Philippe Noiret or Jean Rochefort - but a terrible one for Caine, playing to all his weaknesses: he's never been good at grief, extroverted rage or Uriah Heapish obsequiousness, all of which are required here as the character hovers between a desperate religious faith and callous manipulation and all of which Caine fails miserably at. Sadly he's not alone. As if to compensate for the absurdity of casting a cockney as a Vichy Frenchman, this Anglo-Canadian-French co-production doesn't have a single French actor in a speaking role, instead populating the film almost entirely with British character actors delivering 'typically French' dialogue, though thankfully none attempt the accent. It's not so much that they're even bad actors, just the wrong ones: Tilda Swinton's examining magistrate isn't one of her finer hours, Jeremy Northam's unlikely French Army colonel meanders through the film with a bemused smirk, while Charlotte Rampling play's Caine's chambermaid ex-wife wiv a bit orra Saff Lundin accent that makes you wonder if she really has been living in France all those years. Only Edward Petherbridge, Frank Finlay and Alan Bates manage to come away with their honour intact. There's an interesting idea for a film in here, with Moore's recurring themes of the conflict between the desire for salvation constantly undermined by the harsh realities of the world still visible through the cracks, and there's a nice rationale behind the 'Jewish commando' group trying to kill him, but the result just looks like glossy Sunday evening television despite Jewison's visually assured direction.