Polanski doesn’t seem interested to push his film past the second gear, but it is a stately and handsome work about the Dreyfus Affair.
Dir. Roman Polanski
2019 | France | Drama/History | 132 mins | 1.85:1 | French
Not rated (likely to be PG13)
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Louis Garrel, Emmanuelle Seigner
Plot: In 1894, French Captain Alfred Dreyfus is wrongfully convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment at Devil’s island.
Awards: Won Grand Jury Prize, FIPRESCI Prize & Green Drop Award (Venice)
International Sales: Playtime
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Roman Polanski is back with a period piece about French political history, specifically the controversial Dreyfus Affair that captured an entire nation’s attention back in the 1890s.
Starring Jean Dujardin as Colonel Picquart who after being assigned as the head of the intelligence service begins to realise that there may be a massive coverup at the highest levels of the military.
An officer, Dreyfus (Louis Garrel), has been sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, wrongly on charges of treason. In a case of injustice of the highest order, allegedly marked by racial discrimination (Drefyus is Jewish), rather than strong evidence, we follow Picquart as he seeks to try to correct things, but at great professional peril.
The film had the strongest opening for Polanski in France in years with a box-office gross of nearly US$12 million.
Polanski milks as much tension as he can from the material, raising the stakes with an assured storytelling style, but he doesn’t seem interested to push his film past the second gear.
I think you can say that it is an old man’s film (Polanski’s already 86 years old)—a stately and handsome affair, but with a chronic lack of urgency. I’m not so sure if it really deserved the Grand Jury Prize at Venice. You might have to go back to The Ghost Writer (2010) for his last great, incisive work.
Still, An Officer and a Spy will reward viewers who are patient and with strong interest in world history and legality. How the Dreyfus affair plays out is fascinating, and Polanski’s film is a good primer to dig further and better appreciate the significance and context of the landmark case.