The announcement of a new Roman Polanski picture arrives with a flurry of moral questions. The French-Polish citizen has been in hiding from American authorities since 1978, when he was indicted on six criminal charges, including those of rape of a 13-year-old girl. He fled to his place of birth, France, he has remained there ever since. Numerous attempts to extradite him have failed, yet the threat of trial hangs over him still.
It is in this context that one must consider the personal resonance Polanski might possibly perceive with the subject of his new film An Officer and a Spy (titled J’Accuse in France). It focuses on a famous, real-life miscarriage of justice and wrongful internment that took place between 1894 and 1906, in relation to the innocent French Jewish Artillery Officer Alfred Dreyfuss.
In Polanski’s version, sometime after Dreyfuss’s conviction, George Picquart, the recently appointed Chief of the army’s intelligence section, intercepts information suggesting a different man committed high treason by betraying French military secrets to the Germans. Picquart whistle blows and quickly discovers that his is a version of events that no one wants to hear. The mendacious establishment snarls and bears teeth like a cornered beast at the suggestion something was amiss in Dreyfuss’ sentencing.
Surprisingly, exile for the director and blowback from the ‘Me Too’ movement hasn’t precluded Polanski from enlisting the cream of French cinema talent to bring his vision to life. When you can call upon The Artist’s Jean Dujardin for the role of the well-meaning Georges Picquart and Louis Garrel as the imprisoned Dreyfuss, you are still pulling some significant strings.
Even though the Dreyfuss affair has a suitcase full of intriguing twists and turns that make it ripe for a big screen retelling, somehow An Officer and a Spy is like a fledgling struggling to take flight. Inconsistency reigns. Some sections drag, while others zip along. Clearly, it is not fit to lace the boots Polanki’s so-called ‘Apartment Trilogy’ (which includes Rosemary’s Baby), Chinatown, or a later masterwork like The Pianist.
Can you can separate the art from the artist? The old quandary hits home hard with Roman’s output. The fact that this offing feels like some sort of veiled personal statement doesn’t help matters, either. But if you cast the politics aside, you have one incontrovertible truth: An Officer and a Spy is stately and well-structured, but also surprisingly dull.