The final novel by the prolific Canadian author Brian Moore was, to be honest, not one of his finest, but it was better than Norman Jewison’s film of it suggests. “The Statement” focuses on the kind of ethical problem that Moore often dealt with (frequently, as here, within the context of Catholic ecclesiastical institutions), but not as successfully as was often the case in his books, and the changes that Ronald Harwood and the director have made weaken it further. Even Michael Caine’s strenuous efforts, in the role of an elderly war criminal on the lam from justice and trying to survive when mysterious hit-men are sent to kill him, fail to inject much life into the film.

Caine plays Pierre Brossard, who, as a member of the Milice, the collaborationist police force of the Vichy regime, was instrumental in the execution of seven French Jews in 1944. (The episode is shown at the start of the picture, with George Williams doing an adequate job of impersonating the young Caine–though the voice seems that of the older man. Flashbacks to it then recur throughout.) In 1992, when the rest of the film is set, Brossard is perpetually on the run, taking refuge from the law in a circle of Roman Catholic establishments (monasteries, for the most part) whose leaders are members of a right-wing “church within the church” called the Chevaliers de Sainte-Marie. (The allusion is to groups within the ecclesiastical structure that seem shadowy and powerful to outsiders–Opus Dei is a perfect example.) Brossard had received an unexplained pardon from the French government in the past, and gets financial support from some of his old colleagues in the Vichy establishment–most notably a retired police official (fidgety Frank Finley)–but he’s now in renewed danger: not only does a recently-passed law punishing “crimes against humanity” provide a basis for ambitious judge Anne Marie Levi (Tilda Swinton) to undertake a concerted search for the old man in tandem with army colonel Roux (Jeremy Northam), but killers apparently sponsored by a revenge-seeking Jewish group are tracking him, too. Their intention is to execute him and leave on his body the titular statement identifying him as an unpunished war criminal. But in the background, powerful forces are at work: another police official, Pochon (a pallid Ciaran Hinds) is actually hiring the hit-men under the direction of an elderly, unnamed figure of great reach (a properly cadaverous John Neville).

There’s the stuff of a good political-religious thriller in all this, but “The Statement” doesn’t effectively realize the potential. One can’t blame Caine: he works very hard to make the pious but self-seeking Brossard an intriguingly complex character. But Jewison’s direction is oddly slack, and Harwood’s structuring of the story accentuates the problems in Moore’s original while adding some of his own devising. The adaptation minimizes the material dealing with the inner workings of the Chevaliers and the larger ecclesiastical structure, presenting it all in the most simplistic possible fashion. It puts entirely too much emphasis on the pursuit of Brossard by the legal team, expanding the judge’s role, presumably to make it a suitable part for the well-dressed but unhappily stiff Swinton (Northam, natty in his uniform, is smoother but not much more impressive); in doing so, unfortunately, it merely exaggerates one of the major difficulties in the book–the clumsiness of the officials tracking Brossard, and the unlikeliness of his hairbreadth escapes from them. It also fails to resolve the weakness in Moore’s presentation of the hit-man business, in which the hired killers (played without much credibility by Matt Craven and Noam Jenkins) prove to be hopelessly inept and Brossard’s evading of their bullets totally implausible. More seriously, the script offers much less specificity about the forces behind the effort to snuff out Brossard: here the figure played by Neville is never identified, and the addition of a scene involving a government minister (played much too smugly by Alan Bates) who warns Levi not to get involved in the hot-potato case is poor compensation. (Moore offered very thorough background on these matters.) But truly fatal is a final sequence that the filmmakers have simply tacked onto the story where Moore’s novel ends, turning what had been a downbeat conclusion into one of cheap triumph. It’s a meretricious epilogue, totally at odds with the dark spirit of the original, and apparently added simply because of the ludicrous notion that today’s audiences are unable or unwilling to accept the fact that sometimes things turn out unhappily. There is some relief from the rickety storytelling in Caine’s performance, which shows his customary expertise (especially in a tense Marseilles interlude he spends with Charlotte Rampling, as Brossard’s estranged wife), and in the numerous French locations, which are photographed reasonably well by Kevin Jewison.

But though Moore’s novel was decidedly imperfect, it at least represented a serious attempt to grapple with some powerful moral dilemmas. Jewison’s film, by comparison, might be equally well-intentioned, but its alterations are unwise and its overall treatment, aside from Caine, curiously flat and unconvincing.