His best picture since The Pianist, The Officer and The Spy (or J’Accuse, its title in France) is Polanski’s third and arguably most accessible film since he began working in French seven years ago. Refreshingly, no opening titles announce that the film is based on true events, as once the name Alfred Dreyfus is heard in the first few minutes it becomes clear that this is indeed a true story based on unfortunate historical events.
This story of Dreyfus thrusts the viewer into the late 19th century: the use of natural light throughout is perhaps the biggest factor, amplifying the effect of horse drawn carts travelling down dirt roads and natural orange interiors. The spectacular wardrobe of the French military, as well as civilians, is the final touch in recreating the period with amazing reality.
A simple story of an innocent man being condemned because of his heritage is hardly unique. Its presentation however is delivered with the expertise one would expect from a director with six decades of experience. The story itself is well known but elements of suspense effortlessly blend into the screenplay, co-written by the author of the source novel and previous collaborator Robert Harris.
Following the dramatic opening in which Polanski’s long-time cinematographer Pawel Edelman uses the large open area to great effect, it is revealed that a high figure of the army’s intelligence wing is severely ill. The central character Georges Picquart (Jean Dudjardin) is asked to replace him despite no prior experience in this field. The true reason he is chosen is made clear via the effectively presented flashbacks in the first act.
Soon his new position allows him to witness the evidence against Dreyfus that subsequently led to the farce that was his trial. Importantly, he becomes aware of his peripheral involvement in the trial, leading him to question the methods used by the army he has been a part of for 25 years.
The film excels in the building of Picquart’s character, simultaneously and almost comically portraying the inherent corruption that breeds within intelligence agencies who show little to no transparency. The more Picquart learns, the further his character evolves while the reality of espionage put on display, a reality which of course remains relevant to this day.
Winning best picture and director at the ‘The French Oscars’ unsurprisingly caused a stir and multiple walkouts. Given Roman’s rather dim remarks that he chose this story feeling it aligned with his own as he maintains his innocence, this reaction to his win is far from surprising. His Jewish background doesn’t seem to have much, if any, bearing on his situation: a far cry from the hell that Alfred Dreyfus experienced.
Pushing this aside though, it is clear that J’Accuse is the work of an experienced filmmaker in top form: a masterful demonstration in how to create a believable historical piece. Regardless of one’s opinion of Polanski himself, his high skill in film-making has not decreased and cannot be denied.
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