Early verdicts on An Officer and a Spy diverge as widely as opinions on how to respond to the very idea of a new film by Roman Polanski. Variety’s Owen Gleiberman takes serious offense at what he reads in the film as a parallel drawn between Polanski, who pleaded guilty to statutory rape over forty years ago, and Alfred Dreyfus, a French officer falsely accused of spying for the Germans in 1894. TheWrap’s Alonso Duralde finds the film mired in “tepid listlessness,” while at RogerEbert.com, Glenn Kenny argues that when “he’s really on his game, as he is here, Polanski can be said to be the final arbiter of how to compose a film frame, how to choreograph what moves within it, how to move the frame itself, when to go to another shot.” And Time Out’s Phil de Semlyen stops just short of taking his effusive praise right over the top. “It’s going too far to say that it looks like an Auguste Renoir painting and plays like a Jean Renoir movie,” he writes, “but not by much.”
Cowritten by Polanski and Robert Harris, who wrote the novel in 2013 and collaborated with the director on The Ghost Writer (2010), An Officer and a Spy opens with a secret court martial in which Dreyfus (Louis Garrel) is stripped of his rank and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, a penal colony off the northern coast of South America. One witness happy to see the French army rid of the “pestilence” of a Jewish officer is Georges Picquart (Jean Dujardin), but when Picquart is appointed head of army intelligence, he discovers proof of Dreyfus’s innocence. Writing for Film Comment, Jonathan Romney finds the film “suggestive of French fin de siècle John le Carré. What makes the drama gripping and plausible from the start is the fact that Picquart is not a noble idealist and whistleblowing rebel, but simply a career soldier of integrity who believes in truth and justice and believes it is his duty to pursue their cause.”
Even with such allies as Émile Zola, whose famous open letter published in the newspaper L’aurore in 1898 gives the film its French title, J’accuse, Picquart’s perseverance will cost him dearly. An Officer and a Spy is “a sober, stiff-collared procedural, handsomely shot but also oddly bloodless until the more conventional paranoid-thriller rhythms of its final act kick in,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin. “By the very nature of the story, the best parts arrive late: a foot chase, the retrial, the rousing Zola stuff, a saber duel with the taurine Major Henry (a terrific, steam-snorting Grégory Gadebois). Before then, the investigation is painstaking, the pace heavy-footed. The film pours out its catharsis like concrete: you have to wait for it to set.”
The Guardian’s Xan Brooks finds that Polanski, now eighty-six, “has long since abandoned the air of youthful, dancing mischief that characterized the likes of Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. All the same, An Officer and a Spy paints a subtly devastating portrait of the French general staff, with a stench of establishment sulphur that recalls Chinatown.” Screen’s Tim Grierson agrees that the film presents “a late-nineteenth century France in which moral darkness seems to be fast descending—also explored previously in The Pianist and his Oliver Twist adaptation. There will be a temptation to ascribe certain motivations to Polanski’s decision to film a movie about a horrible miscarriage of justice. But, interestingly, from the evidence on screen—especially during a nicely bittersweet coda—the director seems fairly wary about how liberating exoneration truly is.”
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