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|R E V I E W B Y R I C H C L I N E||
dir Norman Jewison|
scr Ronald Harwood
with Michael Caine, Tilda Swinton, Jeremy Northam, Charlotte Rampling, Ciaran Hinds, John Neville, Alan Bates, Frank Finlay, Noam Jenkins, William Hutt, Colin Salmon, Matt Craven
release US 12.Dec.03; UK 27.Feb.03
Cats and mice: Caine and Rampling (above), Northam and Swinton (below)
A strong cast and some fascinating ideas are enough to keep us glued to this political-religious thriller, even though it's rather by-the-books. It's also one of those odd films where everyone speaks in clipped British accents, even though everyone's French. As if it's set in a parallel universe in which Britain conquered France a few hundred years ago.
The story is set in 1992 and centres on Pierre (Caine), a 70-year-old who as a young man in the 1940s was a member of the Vichy Milice, a French police force that carried out Nazi orders. And then some. For nearly 50 years he's been in hiding, protected by a secret Catholic society. Now a super-secret Jewish organisation has found him at just the same time as a French magistrate (Swinton) and her military assistant (Northam) have caught his trail as well. The Jewish radicals want to bump him off, the French government wants to try him as a war criminal. So how long can he keep hiding?
It's a sharp tale with lots of cat-and-doggery, as well as well-used settings in Paris and along the Riviera. Once you get over their Englishness, the cast is very good, with Caine commanding sympathy as a seriously unsympathetic character, Swinton and Northam adding off-beat touches here and there, and Rampling excellent as usual in an extended cameo as Pierre's estranged wife. And having the likes of Hinds, Neville, Bates, Finlay and others in side roles adds weight as the film grapples with important, far-reaching issues. Jewison directs in a stately, spellbound style, and it's here that things begin to falter--it's just not exciting, which is a problem for a thriller. The ideas and characters are what keep us involved, not any sense of suspense. And as a result the imperfections in Harwood's script become all too apparent; we begin to notice the clunky plot exposition, corny story elements (like sneaky priests, ominous pronouncements and secret papers!) and gaping plot holes. Basically, the basics are here for a superior thriller, but the sum of the parts never rise above merely average. Which for this fine cast and crew isn't quite good enough.
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